THE PROBLEMATIC CHARACTER OF POWER-OVER
In our traditional political cultures, some people have too much power. Most people have too little power. And the kind of power that’s usually involved is the power to dominate, to beat the other side(s) in battle and to enforce rules and outcomes. The more sophisticated such power gets, the more it becomes hidden, manipulative, and institutionalized so that it becomes habitual, an assumed part of “the way things are” and less a target for investigation and challenge.
Almost every political campaign about an issue or a candidate is run using and seeking that kind of power – “power-over”. Everyone involved in such political activity wants to win – and in a majoritarian system, winning means getting majority support – a majority of public opinion, a majority of the votes, a majority of the legislators.
While admittedly this is an oversimplification, that’s essentially what’s going on in all our normal political battles. The competitive majoritarian system is designed for that and it’s very hard to successfully function outside of that dynamic.
So political science deals largely with such social power – how to get it, how to use it, and how to make it functional within the larger society – especially since concentrated power tends to attract more power to itself, which can be a problem. We see this not only in dictatorships, but in our own oligarchies as wealthy people and corporations use money and media to unduly influence elections and public officials in ways that make the oligarchs richer and more powerful. Over and over we see examples of Lord Acton’s famous maxim, “All power tends to corrupt – and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Power-over implies and includes “power-against”. In other words, the power to dominate evokes competition among power-centers to control others, to control their behavior and even their thoughts and feelings. In its most toxic form, power-over seeks to eliminate or destroy The Other, as in monopoly, violence, war and genocide. Competition and force are natural companions of power-over.
But the problematic role of power-over in politics is often broader and more subtle. The vast majority of human power in public life today is either suppressed (if not by government repression, then by everything from rules and traditions to busy-ness and entertainment) or simply distorted by the dynamics of the majoritarian battleground. Few people remark on how most of the life energy citizens put into political campaigns is diluted by the compromises they make to squeeze the complexity of their individual thinking and feeling into the soundbites of a collective partisan position or a single partisan politician… and then what’s left seems wasted in battle – especially when their side loses.
But there’s a deeper problem with the battle, even when we win: To the extent we dominate someone or something – in other words, to the extent we depend on power-over to produce the effects we want – we are pushing aside or suppressing “undesirable” energies we don’t want to deal with more creatively and collaboratively. These energies will tend to resist us or to show up in other ways or at other times, generating unwanted “side effects”. Although power-over often gets us observable results in the short-term, long-term dependence on it degrades the well-being of life within and around us. The parallels to addiction are not accidental.
Of course the use of power-over reaches beyond politics and governance. For example, we see power-over at the center of most science and business activity, as people try to predict, monitor, and control the world’s opportunities and challenges. Perhaps most significantly, power-over is at the heart of civilization’s relationship with nature, with notably dire results. So we need to apply the wise democratic approach to power to our relations with nature. Nature will, after all, have the last word, as it is orders of magnitude more powerful than what civilization is capable of. We would be wise to become its partner.