What is power of the whole, by the whole, and for the whole?

Power is basically the capacity to influence or have impact.  In a wise democracy the power that shapes our lives and future is participatory and wise.  It emerges from the whole and serves the whole – the whole community, the whole country, the whole living world.

We realize that every individual and group actually has a lot of potential power – the potential to think and feel and make a difference. In creating a wise democracy we don’t want to waste or disperse people’s collective energy in competition and control any more than we have to.  Rather, we seek to invest their passion and gifts in conversations and activities through which they discover common ground and shared aspirations they are all passionate about bringing into reality.

A wise democratic society is set up so that people can and do work together for their shared goals, empowered by the natural passion they have for what they love and what they want. A wise democratic system specializes in empowering such self-organizing energies and does not systematically block those energies nor does it allow people’s expressed longings to gather dust on some bureaucratic shelf.

Just as we use water’s downhill impulses to irrigate our crops and generate our power, a wise democratic society sets things up so that people’s natural self-interest serves not only them but the well-being of the whole.  Wise democratic systems are designed to help the power of each community serve the lives of its members now and into the future, and also so that the power of its members serves the community. There is “free” power in synergy and design, and wise democracy seeks to use it wherever it can.

To achieve this, wise democracy redefines and expands our sense of what power is all about.  Power is no longer assumed to be “power-over”:  It is not all about managing, controlling, manipulating, winning and dominating.  While keeping power-over in its toolbox – to be used mindfully, seldom and with special checks – wise democrats prefer, nurture and creatively engage other kinds of power that are more evocative than controlling, for example:

  • Power-with – the power of collaboration around shared goals or needs;
  • Power-from-within – the power of intrinsic motivation, capacity, and inspiration; and
  • Power-from-among – the power of synergy, creative interaction, tapping the capacities and resources that exist among us or in a whole system.

(See “Modes of Power” below for a more detailed breakdown.)

Why?  In working for a wise democracy we realize that the more thoroughly a new collective direction serves the needs and hopes of all involved – that is, to the extent it serves the big Us, the whole Us, the Us with no Them – the more whole-heartedly we will all dedicate ourselves to it, making it more effective and powerful. Wise democratic power is expanded and energized by our sense of ownership for what we want and what we create together.

More generally, the more we work with the energies and entities around us, the more they become our allies, clarifying what needs to be taken into account and bringing their energy to our common undertaking. This makes it more likely that what we do will be benign and sustainable. Furthermore, the more evocative kinds of power generally tend to have fewer downsides because they arise from and serve the whole of what’s going on and what needs to happen.

However, as noted, we sometimes need to use power-over, even in a wise democracy. In those situations we seek to ameliorate its potential downsides.  We shape and qualify any competition or top-down form of power by engaging alternative forms of power in the process. We can see examples of this today when people use consent to delegate some of their power to “servant leaders” for specific purposes and times. We also see this when sports stars compete to enhance their individual and team excellence – and even the excellence of their opponents, an attitude often noted as a mark of “good sportsmanship”.  So even in the midst of hierarchy and heated competition, power-over can show up as “clean power” that includes power-with, power-from-within, and power-from-among as part of its functioning.

In short, to the extent we can arrange for the power that shapes our shared life to arise from and serve the whole, we can have a wise democracy.

Further Reading
on the Nature of Power