The Secrets of Power II

Maybe I should title this “The Sequels of Power”?  Nah… onward.  If you haven’t read “The Secrets of Power,” you probably should.

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The Balance of Power

What is a shifting power dynamic? Imagine a dam on a river, controlling the flow downstream.  The dam controls water’s desire to find its level.  Water flows downhill along the path of least resistance until arriving at a point someone has erected resistance… the dam.  In controlling flow, the owner of the dam can extract the energy generated by this flow.  Power converts a flow of desire into something else.

The power dynamic shifts the second water finds an alternative path it can exploit, around or under the dam. It may even completely erode the dam.  The dam’s power lies in its ability to profit from the flow, and in its ability to prevent the flow from taking other paths.  Now think of the impact of Uber and Lyft on local taxicab companies. Suddenly, a change in the relationship between the water and the dam.  But not an elimination of power; just its shift to a new locus.  While the local taxi monopoly dams may have been eroded, upstream the big-data, central ownership dam of Uber now holds the power.

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Layers of Abstraction: Attention to Currency to Power

In the oldest personal economies, trading on reputation and reciprocity, power lay in being perceived as a person who could deliver the goods.  Prove your word is your bond. Establish a reputation.  That’s how you get attention.  By demonstrating over and over that you have control over allocation of something others want, and you will slake their desire.  You may also need to fulfill their fear.  Fear is just another form of desire.  The desire to “not.”   Not die. Not feel pain. Not be embarrassed. Not lose access to a community. Not lose attention. Not have power.

The powerful create the impression that desire is met through them, and they work tirelessly to preserve this perception, prevent its erosion, and stamp out competition. But this economy is limited to the “real” objects you can offer. Safe passage.  Land. Cattle. Survival or non-aggression.

That is a very slow moving power economy.  I see in it the roots of Honor Codes — societal laws designed to protect the power of “Reputation” much the same way current laws are written to protect property. Dishonor a man, cause him a loss of reputation, and you have perhaps single-handedly stolen his means of surviving:  His power to leverage reputation to gather the things he needs.

Enter Money.

Currency is an abstraction of attention.  You can now repay a debt to someone with something other than your personal attention. Where we formerly traded attention for bartered goods, we now expect our attention to be converted into a universal mechanism for achieving our desires. We are paid for devoting attention to something; usually called a job.  Money once earned, now spendable anywhere.  Universalized attention. Universal power.

Currency is power abstracted. Money puts an end to, or at least breaks the monopoly, of honor culture.  Loss of reputation no longer matters, if you have a “universal,” portable form of power.  There is a reason we speak of someone being “independently wealthy” or “financially independent.” Money allows a person to say, “I no longer need your personal favor, because I have money, a universal currency for acquiring what I want, and it does not have to go through you.” If currency does not completely obliterate honor based systems, it certainly greases the skids to allow them to move much faster.

Because Money is an abstracted form of attention, real power begins to flow at the point you turn attention into money.  People may not be interested in you for your sparkling conversation, but if you have money and they perceive they can get to it, they will suffer your banter.

You can be a boor.  A liar. A philandering cad. A rapist.  A Trump. And you could amass power if you can purvey the illusion that you are the gateway to what people want.  And what people want is power to get what they want for themselves, and in most cases money fits the bill.  An offer of money is one of the most certain ways of making sure someone pays attention to you… at least until they get your money.

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Religious Power 

Instead of asking my friends to define “power,” I should have asked, “Would you like the secret to eternal life, or at least a surefire way to get rid of belly fat?”  People are perpetually hungry to understand death and what may or may not happen after it. Insatiably seeking what they may or may not do in this life to make the transition to the next go more smoothly; or how to get rid of belly-fat.

Religion. The first self-help fad.  What if the secret to eternal life is to lose belly fat?

Those who promise they hold the key to eternal life, the secret of salvation, yes THEY establish a reputation for possessing the things you desire most.  They have answers. How much will you pay for those answers?  A decent preacher can take in donations of food and clothing, allowing him to continue preaching. Some even own jet airplanes.

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Friends’ Definitions of Power

Of the friends who responded, most leaned toward defining power in terms of control and manipulation of others.

These definitions show each of them knows intuitively power’s components, but I believe all but one dance around the basic root of what power is. (We’ll get to that one definition before the end.)

  • Power is the ability of one person to impose his will on others in order to compel them to do his bidding.
  • Power is when others are forced/manipulated to prioritize the powerful’s desires/needs over their own. (Attention diverted.)
  • The successful application of manipulation and/or abuse

OK, for these people power involves compulsion.  How?  How do you impose will on someone?  You must convince the affected party that “If you want to get what you want, you must go through me first;  you must engage in a transaction with me, or you are going no further.” You must establish the perception that you control access to the other’s object of desire.

Want to immediately steal or eliminate a person’s power?  Stop feeling compelled by their offer.  Ignore them.  You may suffer, but power held by compulsion is power in which you are complicit by giving in to your fears.

Another respondent who lived her entire childhood in Enver Hoxha’s Albanian dictatorship, steeped in the honor code of the “Kanun of Leke Dukagjini,” at least as mythological background noise, responded thus:

  • But enduring power is the power that is given and not grabbed… Enduring power is softer, relational, based on reputation rather than force.
    The kind of power Jesus had. … The Gospels speak regularly of huge crowds following Jesus. Perhaps they gathered because of his reputation as a healer. Perhaps they gathered because of his ability as a teacher.
    But this is the kind of power that it is given to us by others rather than grabbed.
    We gain that power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people. Having enduring power is a privilege that depends on other people continuing to give it to us.

This foreign diplomat focuses on the distinction between coercion and love, but the root of this definition remains that a person with power has established the reputation for the capacity to provide what someone desires  (Jesus) or fears (in the case of a dictator?)

Indeed, this perspective even covers simple power, like the power of attracting friends, because one is known to be a good time, intellectually rigorous conversationalist, or a willing assistant in times of need.  That is power, indeed.  The question becomes “How much does the holder of such a power want to leverage the power for his/her own benefit?”   What is the toll, the transaction involved?  In love, none.  But the power to attract attention/engagement still exists.

A mathematician friend offered:

  • Frank Herbert in Dune says power is the ability to destroy (he who can destroy the spice controls the spice…)

Within that definition we see all the components discussed so far.  The power to act as gatekeeper to something others desire, and the implicit understanding that by having that power you can potentially control or direct those other persons’ actions if they want to ever see their spice again. This is not loving power, but coercive power.

And this led to my favorite, simple, algorithmic definition of power.

  • Power is the capacity to create movement.

This is the root of the “power transaction.”  Power allows an individual to attract, repel, prohibit, or command action/movement in others. Everything discussed to this point is a list of “how to get or possess power,” not what power is.

Repeatedly demonstrate that your ability to provide is real.  Keep producing hit songs that absolutely defy any booty to stop shaking.  Keep writing words that people yearn to read.  Demonstrate the power is real by having your favor desired.

And of course, kill those who try to escape.  Punish those who defy.  Exile attempted usurpers.  Shower benefit on those who are loyal.

Power is the capacity to attract and retain attention of others, and that is capacity to create movement.  If you can’t create movement in someone, you don’t have power over them.





2 thoughts on “The Secrets of Power II

  1. First, to be clear, we are talking primarily about interpersonal political power, and though discussing it in terms of physics based power may provide a meaningful insight into interpersonal power it can also mislead one into misunderstanding the agents of cause and effect. Real interpersonal power is nearly(in my opinion) synonymous with the term leadership. Why, because those with power lead, set the course, determine the desired outcome, prioritize values and ultimately create the future. Having spent a good deal of my adult life teaching leadership I am always drawn to a specific scene in Conan the Barbarian in which the primary antagonist Thulsa Doom tries to explain to Conan what power is, and he does so by asking a young women to fall to her death in front of him remarking, “that is power.” In terms of people, real power is getting people to so believe in what you want them to do that they are willing to forsake all other needs or wants. To illustrate, how does an Army Officer get a soldier to run at a machine gun? Money can’t be the motivator for clear reasons. All future personal promises or desires fall to nothing worthy of risking one’s life. Real power then is the alignment of someone else’s values so thoroughly with your own that they are willing to do whatever it takes, including risking their lives, to achieve the ends you have set. All other political power is logical and therefore economic in nature with either accurately or inaccurately measured cost benefit analysis at the personal level. But getting someone to set aside their own well being to achieve a goal is ultimately the most powerful of all interpersonal political power, and by far the most dangerous if abused.

  2. I like this analysis. Specifically the sentence “Real power then is the alignment of someone else’s values so thoroughly with your own that they are willing to do whatever it takes, including risking their lives, to achieve the ends you have set.”

    This aligns with my stab at a definition in part I : Power is having the capacity to establish and maintaining the belief that you possess, or can provide access to, something the other person wants.” (Then when you ask for something from the other, they willingly comply because they still want the thing you offer.).

    That is also inclusive of people being willing to self sacrifice. Good stuff!

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