My grappling with the problem of Palestine, at a time when I was working as a counsellor and often viewing my clients’ problems in terms of powerlessness and empowerment, led me increasingly to the question of power in the international political sphere and how this invisible and intangible phenomenon functions.

The following notes come from the first two class handouts in the series ‘People and Power’ which I ran in 2008-09.

1. What is Power?

Think about the use of the word ‘powerful’. We may apply this adjective to a person, a machine, an argument, a state, a religious organisation, a commercial organisation, God, a reputation, a writer, an orator, a conductor, a musician, a parent, a parental figure, a social class, a current, a thinker, a role model and so on. This means that we think they have power. But what is power?

Before we try to answer that, let’s try to think what the opposite of ‘powerful’ is? How about ‘powerless’? Or should it be ‘weak’? If you think of power as being relative, then the word ‘powerless’ seems unsatisfactory. It suggests an absolute. It would be a bit strange to refer to any of the above examples as powerless, but quite normal to refer to them as weak, that is to say, lacking in power according to some continuum reaching between the theoretical extremes of absolute power and powerlessness.

So, what is power? We use this term all the time, but rarely define it. To try to galvanise you into thinking about this, I would like you to consider the following questions. There are no right answers, and you don’t have to answer what you think I want you to say. But nor do I want you to cover up your own instinctive reaction with ‘politically correct’ thoughts. I suspect that the answers you give will move us towards thinking about what power is.

  • Does a young child consider its parents powerful or weak?
  • What does a child feel when it learns to walk, and then to talk?
  • What do you feel when you learn to do something new?
  • What do you feel when you meet a well-known personality?
  • What do you think Tony Blair felt when he met George Bush at the White House?
  • What do you feel when you see a Boeing 747 taking off?
  • What do you feel when you see a military parade?
  • What do you feel when listening to a Churchill speech – or to Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream …’ speech?
  • What do you feel when you talk to your bank manager about a loan?
  • What do you feel when you are stopped by the police?
  • What do you feel when you hear an inspiring piece of music?
  • What do you feel when you achieve something difficult?
  • What do you feel when you are sent on an all-expenses paid trip?
  • What do you feel when you are bit tipsy?
  • What do you imagine it feels like to be a billionaire?
  • What do you feel when you fail to achieve something?
  • What might you feel, or have you felt, if you are told you are suffering from a serious disease?
  • What do you feel when your friend or relation buys something you would like to have, but could never afford?
  • What do religious people feel when praying?
  • What do you feel when you are hungry and face a delicious looking meal?
  • What does someone feel when s/he is hungry and faces a hard crust?
  • How do you feel when someone you love tells you s/he loves you?
  • How do you feel when you are enraged or overcome by desire?

If you have begun to make the connections I want you to make – e.g. not just saying that you are jealous of your rich friend/relation, but looking at what lies behind jealousy – then I think you will be well on the way to understanding the concept of power.

I want at this stage to avoid going down the road which argues against power. We all know how Jesus said that ‘it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God’, the implication being that power is an illusion and a hindrance to real understanding. We will come to this undoubted truth later.

For the moment I want to concentrate on the inevitability of our relationship to power. If we were to say that power is an undesirable aspect of the human condition, we would effectively be saying that children should not attempt to learn to walk and talk, for those achievements are immensely empowering.

In her fascinatingly amoral and no-nonsense book, Power: Creating It; Using It, Helga Drummond writes: ‘Power concerns:

  • getting what you want;
  • doing better than you otherwise might.

A basic theme of this book is that desires are often readily attainable. Power is the key to achievement, yet if you wait for someone to give you power, you will wait forever. Nor is it correct to assume that power must be formally conferred, signed and delivered for it to be real.’

The author is writing largely about power within organisations, but what she says applies to power generally. In particular we should remember throughout this course that power is not confined to officially recognised and incorporated organisations like states. It is equally valid to speak about the power of unincorporated (or at least arguably so) groups like public opinion, Christians, Muslims, Jews, the Masons etc.

I like Drummond’s definition of power, but it fails to mention freedom specifically, and this is such an important concept in the contemporary world. The West (another unincorporated centre of great power, by the way) claims, after all, to be the guardian of ‘freedom’ and others are said to care less about it. And so I propose the following definition:

Power is freedom of action

I could even have left out ‘of action’, for freedom is always about potential action. Think about all the examples of situations we looked at. Is not the key question in each case: How much, or how little constraint is there, or at least is there perceived to be, on the freedom of action of the person concerned? And following on from that, how secure or insecure does the person concerned feel. Let’s take another look.

The child views its parents as having huge power – it has not yet learnt how circumscribed their power is. A child is likely to have feelings of omnipotence when it learns to walk – we express this by saying how proud it looks when it takes its first steps. When you learn to ride a bicycle or swim or drive a car, you feel a major constraint to your movement has been conquered. When you meet a well-known personality you are likely to feel, even if you suppress it, a feeling of awe at the opportunities open to him/her compared with you. And so on.

Which brings me to one last point. Throughout this course I want you to try to be honest about what you actually feel, rather than expressing what you think you ought to feel. You may already feel that the pursuit of power can be dangerous for the world and even, paradoxically, disempowering for the pursuer. But we won’t get to understanding power if we start from that position. We need first of all to understand the centrality of power in our lives.

2. The Power of Groups 

Last time we considered what power is. I suggested (a) that we define it as ‘freedom of action’ (or just ‘freedom’) and (b) that we should try to adopt a neutral attitude to power, not seeing it as good or bad in itself. Some of us found this neutral stance difficult to sustain, since we are accustomed to link power with abuse. On the other hand, empowerment was seen in a positive light, and was sharply distinguished from ‘striving for power’. Can I urge you again to question whether this distinction is philosophically reasonable, even if it reflects common usage.

Implicit in most of what I said last time was that power is the reaction to vulnerability. Human beings are arguably unique in the animal world in being able to contemplate, and they are therefore bound to be aware of their own vulnerability to an extent which other animals are not. The ‘will to power’, as Nietzsche called the striving for power (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883), is an inevitable part of life:

The concept [is not] limited to only those intellectual beings that can actually experience the feeling of power; it applies to all life. … [Later the same year Nietzsche wrote that the ‘will to power’] is an ‘unexhausted procreative will of life.’ There is will to power where there is life and even the strongest living things will risk their lives for more power. (Edited from Wikipedia)

This last observation by Nietzsche suggests to me that the search for power ultimately becomes the search for immortality – that is people who have already achieved a considerable degree of power may seek to eradicate vulnerability, and that can only be achieved through immortality. Strangely, I suspect that many of those who seek this kind of ultimate power would deny that they believe in immortality, yet their actions betray them.

And so we come to groups. Human beings are social animals – that is we cannot live without cooperating with one another. This is true at the most basic level. As with the young of very many species, children who are not cared for by at least one parental figure, die. But our dependence on others is true at a much wider level. If you are not affiliated to any group you will not benefit from the advantages of belonging such as language, protection, division of labour, availability of sexual partners and so on. In other words, you are unlikely to survive.

By group we mean any gathering of people. I would even include a couple, and the whole of humanity is also a group. Groups may be hierarchical, parallel and overlapping. For example, you can be a Brightonian and a citizen of the UK and Northern Ireland because being British is (usually) included in the concept of being a Brightonian. Or I could be a supporter of both Brighton & Hove Albion and of Sussex Country Cricket Club, i.e. two roughly equivalent parallel groups. Of I might be a member of Palestine Solidarity Campaign and of Deir Yassin Remembered, that is two organisations which support the same cause in different ways – i.e. overlapping groups.

Groups are about empowerment. But to be effective they need structure. People in them need to know who does what, an in particular who is the leader. Some groups claim that they have no leadership, that the group as a whole makes decisions on an equal basis. I’m a bit sceptical about this. But even if it is true, it is rare. Most groups have an officially recognised leader, or at least a small group of leaders.

But how do you become a leader? We could also ask how groups are formed? I’m going to simplify matters a bit here in order to suggest a way of looking at leadership and groups. A leader offers to lead the members of the group in such a way that their needs are met. In return he expects to be given the power to do things which other members of the group are not permitted to do, like negotiating with people beyond the group.

Groups develop cultures, that is to say ways of looking at the world and dealing with it, rules about who does what, about what is permitted and what not, what the sanctions are for those who transgress the rules, what is admired and what abhorred etc. Where a group is a sub-group of a larger group, the culture may be largely derivative from the parent group, but with a few idiosyncracies. To use the example above, Brightonian culture is not very different from British culture, but it distinguishes itself by the particularities of Brighton – seaside resort, place for dirty weekends, Brighton Rock, the Prince Regent etc. Leaders will normally promise to perserve, and perhaps enrich, the culture of the group.

I said that ‘a leader offers to lead the members of the group in such a way that their needs are met.’ Again for simplicity’s sake, I want to focus on what I believe is the central ‘need’ of people, and that is security. We expect that group which we call the state to protect us from foreign invasion, we expect those grouping which we roughly lump under the term local government to protect us against crime, we expect (if we are children) parents to protect us against anything dangerous from outside the family.

But now let us consider again a person who aspires to be a leader. If security is what the people want, then exaggerating their insecurity, on the one hand, and your capacity as leader to protect, on the other is an attractive proposition. In a complex group like a state this may be achieved by ensuring that the media tells things the way you want them to. In this way the culture of your ‘society’ (that is group) is ‘programmed’ with an ideology which gives you power. The security which you are offering may include economic security, of course.

Indeed in our society this is what we hear most about, despite the ‘war on terror’. Most government time is taken up with managing the economy in such a way that there is a steady rise in the standard of living so that people feel things can only get better. One of the main accusations against the ‘terrorists’ is that they want to ‘destroy our way of life’, which to a considerable degree means our economic security. For if the economy were to collapse in the way that Marxists predict our survival would truly be at great risk.

Roughly speaking, the larger the group, the more powerful it becomes – which is to say, the more powerful its leaders become. Other factors of course play their part, such as the power of the ideology underpinning the group, the weakness of opposition to the ruling elite both from within and without the group, the efficacy of the sub-groups ensuring security (armred forces, police, economic policy), strategic alliances with other groups, the availability of resources, the efficiency of communications systems like road, railways, telephones, and so on.

From what has been said, it can be seen that groups are likely to be in conflict with one another. If it is in the interests of leaders to slag off those without the group and to develop exclusive ideologies, then it will be difficult to avoid clashes. This is true whether we are talking about states or about the Jones’s and the Robinson’s argument about a fruit tree which grows on the boundary between their two properties.

Mr Jones tells his family that the Robinsons have unscrupulously stollen the Jones’s fruit from the branches of their tree which overhangs the Robinson’s garden. Mr Robinson tells his family that the Joneses have refused to keep the tree pruned, with the result that it is blocking their light. Both Mr Jones and Mr Robinson feel that they must prove their leadership of their respective families by overcoming the other. They become locked into their distorted narratives about the real situation which could, with good will, be resolved peacefully.

Of course the above scenario is not a necessary outcome of group cultures, but it is a likely one. And, of course, this is an abuse of power. What I don’t think is helpful is to conclude that we could do without leadership. It is the quality of the leadership which matters.

The complete handouts for the ‘People and Power’ series can be found in Folder 3 of Box 12 at Mass Observation.

Comments are closed.