Tools: Understanding power

“Power is the ability to do work, as an expression of choice;

responsibility is ‘response-ability’ – the ability to choose appropriate responses to perceived circumstances.”

What is power? Most people would say that they want it, that someone else has it, but don’t ever seem to be able to say what it is. Power is apparently linked in some way with money, or with a supposed ‘right’ to bully others, or to offload work onto others; but then we come across some chance encounter which triggers what we could only call powerful changes in our lives, but which has little or nothing to do with money, or bullying, or anything other than the weirdness of the moment itself. Power is… something… but it’s surprisingly difficult to pin down exactly what that something is.

Whatever definition of power we choose, it is still a choice – which means there’s also a twist attached to that choice. As with all other definitions, how our choice of how we define ‘power’ also determines how we perceive it – and how we experience it.

For example, there’s the so-called ‘common-sense’ notion that power is a kind of limited and rare commodity: some people have it, and most don’t, but everybody wants it. If that’s how power is perceived, all transactions between people are described in terms of a ‘zero-sum’ of power – the old Marxist concept that “it is in the nature of power that it is impossible for one to have more without others having less” – and hence all relationships are viewed in terms of ‘win-lose’. If that’s what I believe, then I’ll also believe that the only way I can win is to make sure that you lose. So if you hold the same concept of power, we’re set for a life-time of struggle… and even if you didn’t hold it to start with, you probably would quite soon, because you’d get very annoyed, very quickly, at my constant attempts to prop myself up by putting you down.

The twist in ‘win-lose’ is that since everyone’s energy is expended on struggling to be ‘the winner’ – and especially in trying to avoid being ‘the loser’ – nobody ever really ‘wins’: all that happens is that an increasing number of people spend ever-increasing amounts of energy going nowhere, ’round and round the garden’. Since one of the most popular means of gaining ‘power’ is to manufacture fear in one sense or another, it’s all too true that “where there’s fear, there’s power; where there’s power, there’s fear”. But the supposed ‘winner’s feeling of having gained power over others masks the reality that everyone loses – and in practice, even the most definite ‘final victory’ can be very short-lived…

Each concept of power is a thread of the wyrd: each has its own path, its own consequences, its own dénouément. So we can change our experience of power – and other people’s experience of power, when in any kind of relationship with us – simply by changing the way we choose to perceive it. If we perceive power as a fixed commodity, that’s what it’ll be; if we treat every relationship as a ‘zero-sum’, that’s what we’ll have. And if, as the slogan for one of the ‘Godfather’ films put it, we base our life on the notion that “true power cannot be given – it must be taken“, we will, in the usual weird way, find plenty of people who are willing to play: there’ll be a few who’ll accept it as their fate that they have to lose to us, but there’ll be many, many more who are also trying to ‘win’ that much-prized feeling of power – and are all too willing to fight us for it… In a very real sense it is true that “life doesn’t have to be struggle” – and that if it is a struggle for us, it’s probable that our past and present choices have helped to make it so.

There’s always a choice, there’s always a twist: we don’t have much choice about the twists, but we do have choice about the choices. So we can choose, for example, to perceive power not as a finite commodity, but as something which is variable and volatile, something which is created – or destroyed – by us, or in the space between us. Power – or the lack of it – depends on us, and how we relate with each other. In this sense, when people relate with each other, there’s a whole spectrum of power-transactions from ‘win-win’ to ‘lose-lose’; in this sense, ‘win-lose’ is just an odd type of ‘lose-lose’, in which the illusion of gaining at one level masks an overall loss at another. The constant ‘win-lose’ battles for power-over and power-under – manipulation, deceit and so on – are replaced by stronger need for power with others to help us find, and share, a deeper and more personal kind of power-from-within. The struggles still exist, in a sense: but rather than being against others, they’re more for understanding – especially understanding of ourselves, and of what our own power is.

This description also matches more closely with the physics definition of power, where ‘power’ – or, more accurately, ‘potential’ – is “the ability to do work”. (In ‘win-lose’, by comparison, power often seems more like “the ability to avoid work” – which is probably why so little actually gets done!)

That bald physics definition, though, applies mainly to machines, which work in only one way, and which have no choice in what they do. By the time we apply it to people, we’d have to expand that physics definition somewhat: we’d have to say that power is “the ability to do work, as an expression of choice“; and not only is the definition of ‘work’ entirely open, but there is also no distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’. This may take a bit of explaining…

First, power may be the ability to do work, but work itself is not power: without awareness, that mistake leads inevitably to the illusion that ‘arbeit macht frei’ (‘work makes freedom’) – the slogan over the gates at Auschwitz… If the work is not done by choice, there is no power: being forced to do someone else’s work rarely feels like power, at any rate! In practice, that’s what ‘win-lose’ is really about: people not so much searching for any real power, as trying desperately – at any cost, to anyone – to avoid the terrifying feeling of powerlessness.

Next, it’s essential to understand that the meaning of ‘work’ is entirely open: for example, to dig a ditch, to solve a complex equation, to calm a fractious child, and to reclaim hope from despair are all work. In physics, ‘work’ is defined as “the rate at which energy is expended”: energy is certainly expended in all those examples of work, so that definition would still apply! But they’re different kinds of energy: physical effort, mental effort, emotional effort, and what would probably be called a spiritual effort – where ‘spiritual’, in this sense, has little to do with religion and the like, but is more ‘a sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of self and of that which is greater than self’. Even in physics, there are different types of energy – electromagnetic, gravity, weak nuclear, strong nuclear – which interact with each other and in some ways change into each other; in the same way, those different kinds of human energy interact with each other and in some ways change into each other – they change through us, as an expression of our choices. Our power exists through the work we choose to do, in whatever form we choose.

The last point is perhaps the hardest: the idea that, as far as power is concerned, there’s no distinction between work and play – or, for that matter, between either of those and learning. Children don’t distinguish between them: a child’s ‘work’ is play – and there’s usually plenty of energy being expended! It’s in children’s play that they develop their many skills, and come to understand their own ‘ability to do work, as an expression of choice’. But by the time we get to adulthood, somewhere the idea creeps in that work isn’t supposed to be enjoyable, isn’t supposed to be meaningful to us, whereas what we still call ‘play-time’ is: hence the common notion, as a friend put it to me the other day, that “work is what I do to pay for my play”. If we’re doing work that has no meaning to us, no purpose in itself, we’re not exactly likely to feel powerful about it…

Yet in its own weird way this attitude to work is just as much of a choice as is the notion of ‘win-lose’ – and with much the same results. In terms of the wyrd, if we choose to view work as boring, disempowering, something we have to do in order to pay for what we really want to do… well, that’s what we’re likely to get, because that is what we choose. And just as with ‘win-lose’, we’re likely to meet up with people who’ll help to reinforce that choice. We can choose to view work in a different way: for example, as Joseph Campbell put it, we can choose to “follow our bliss”, or as Castaneda’s perhaps imaginary ‘teacher’ Don Juan put it, we can “choose a path that has heart” – though at times it can be far from easy to do. Yet if we do that, we’ll find there are people who’ll help to reinforce that choice, too. It’s up to us: we always have that choice.

But the twist is that to make that change happen, we also have to change our choices about power, and about work. And to do that, we have to face the real issue behind all of this: an infamous four-letter word called ‘fear’…

So perhaps the final words on power, in a wider context than work alone, should be those of someone whose life’s work was spent facing those who thought that fear was power, and quietly showing them that it was not:

“Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary to implement the demands of love and justice.

One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love…

What is needed is a realisation that power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
[Martin Luther King, Jr]

On the TomGraves section of this web-site you’ll find more information on practical support for power and responsibility at work, particularly in two of the book-chapters there: Power and Fear and Use and Abuse.

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