A blog by Barry Edelson

An Examination of Power

Why It Exists, Who Has It, How It Affects Everything

"Continual brazen flattery from everybody round him, in the teeth of obvious facts, had brought him to such a state that he no longer saw his own inconsistencies or measured his actions and words by reality, logic or even by simple common sense; but was quite convinced that all his orders, however senseless, unjust and mutually contradictory they might be, became reasonable, just and mutually accordant simply because he gave them."
— A description of Nicholas I from "Hadji Murad" by Tolstoy


Because we live in a nominally democratic society, we tend to harbor the illusion that the exercise of power is an evil that can be progressively eliminated through the advancement of liberty. On parallel lines, we believe that enlightened views of interpersonal relationships diminish the power of one sex above the other, and that the advancement of workers' rights reduces the power of business over workers. But power does not disappear because people govern themselves, or because the authority of some individuals or organizations is either challenged or undermined. Power is a constant, and when it ebbs from a central source of authority it does not disappear but is distributed among the people or dissipated among other institutions in order to protect against its abuse. Power is an intrinsic aspect of human social interaction and, as such, cannot be eliminated.

If we think of power as an enduring feature of society, its disparate applications come into focus as manifestations of a single phenomenon. There is little to distinguish the absolute dictator from the household tyrant, the corporate titan from the playground bully. Each wields what power he has to the greatest extent possible, and each accrues and possesses that power to the degree to which his cleverness and ruthlessness will allow. Countervailing forces may intervene to place checks against his power: sometimes through direct intercession by still more powerful entities — an advancing army, the hand of the law, death — at other times by evolutionary processes — societal changes, shifting allegiances, enlightened attitudes.

It is mainly a matter of degree that separates Stalin from your boss. Stalin gathered to himself the tools of state terror in ever-greater efficiency, to the point where the people under his power had the stark choice of servitude or death. For many, even acquiescence was insufficient to secure survival. Civilized people who are horrified by totalitarianism consider this an extreme example and atypical of human interaction, but Stalin's regime was in actuality the closest history has come to providing an exemplar of perfect power. His people were utterly subject to his will, life itself at his beck and call. In some ways, his ascendancy could be considered an inevitable outcome of human interaction. Despotism is not the least bit rare; it exists in every corner of human existence. It is merely rare for one individual to control the apparatus of state power on such a vast scale and with so little challenge to his authority. Of course, the absence of meaningful dissent was not accidental, but a deliberate outcome of extremely centralized rule. Power is its own raison d'etre, justified by its own logic, perpetuated by the workings of its internal machine. There are no inherent limits to the extremity of its implementation.

If your boss does not exercise such outright power over you and your fellow employees, it is not because he would not, but because he cannot. We happen to live in a society in which there is recourse to the law, and employers cannot, for example, order people killed with impunity. Furthermore, your boss, while a powerful figure in the sphere of your life, may be a benevolent human being to whom such an action is unthinkable. If that is the case, it is because other forces in addition to the law have interceded to stay his hand: for example, the inculcation of concepts of "good" behavior through moral and/or religious training. Nonetheless, the news is daily replete with examples of individuals who, despite their proper upbringings and exemplary educations, overstepped the bounds of "good" behavior when presented with opportunities to apply the power that had been put into their hands. Indeed, people are murdered regularly over disputes arising from business dealings of one sort or another. Conscience is, at best, an uneven arbiter of human activity.

The unreliability of conscience was illustrated by a famous experiment conducted some decades ago in which a subject was instructed to give electric shocks to another subject in an adjoining room. Each time the second subject, who could not be seen, failed to answer a question correctly, the first subject was urged to apply a shock. While some people demurred, despite the soothing reassurance of the white-coated laboratory supervisor, most people followed the instructions — even though the shocks steadily increased in intensity, even though the victim's (fictitious) pain was clearly audible, even though the subject was often deeply uncomfortable about his own actions. The experiment was intended to demonstrate that the cover of authority would lead many people to absolve themselves of responsibility for even a cruel action, thus explaining (supposedly) how otherwise decent human beings could be turned into willing accomplices of official brutality. What it also demonstrated, perhaps inadvertently, was that power does not reside merely in the mind or word of a dictator, and is not concentrated entirely in the will of a single individual. It is diffused throughout the social group in which it is exercised.


Imagine an isolated forest tribe that has only two people. There are essentially two ways in which power can be distributed in such a small group: one individual can thoroughly dominate the other, or they can share power between them. The exigencies of survival would make the latter more likely than the former, but the balance of power is still likely to shift continuously. One may have a more assertive personality but the other more intelligence; one may possess greater physical strength but the other more cunning or courage in the face of danger. Even in a highly cooperative, perhaps loving, relationship, circumstances will constantly test each one's will against the other's. And even in this smallest of human social units, the possibilities for disagreement, manipulation, misunderstanding and defiance, and their consequent effects on the balance of power, are virtually limitless. All married people can attest to this.

Now imagine not two people, but 20. The dynamics of power become immeasurably more complex. The lives of individuals still matter a great deal to the question of survival, but the loss of one individual would not be as catastrophic as in the case of only two people. Hence, the ability of some members of the group to subjugate others through the withholding of food, for example, or the threat of mortal violence, grows substantially. The emergence of sub-factions and rivalries is likely. A "successful" group is not necessarily one in which power is distributed evenly and harmony reigns supreme, but one in which power is balanced in such a way as to gain the maximum advantage for the greatest number in the group, and for the group as a whole.

Now imagine a village of 300 people, the number beyond which researchers estimate that tribal members can no longer sustain a personal relationship with every other member, or even know them all by name. The life of each individual is necessarily less sacrosanct, particularly those belonging to different families or other sub-groups. The loss of a single member, while not insignificant, grows increasingly less threatening to the overall good of the tribe. Indeed, the concentration of power in the hands of a chief, or assembly of chiefs, may at times demand the punishment or removal of a particular member who poses a threat to their power. As in the smaller groups, social balance does not depend on the humanity exhibited by members of the group towards one another, though human nature makes some amount of empathetic behavior inevitable. The larger the group, the wider an acceptance of rules of conduct becomes imperative, and the more a centralized authority becomes necessary to the enforcement of the rules. Furthermore, varied opportunities arise for the concentration of power in fewer hands, and more means become available for the exercise of that power. New forms of dominance, including slavery, become possible.

Now consider a city of 100,000 people, or nation of 100 million, and the vast reservoir of power available to be exploited.

Power therefore can be seen as a coefficient of a given human population, its size in proportion to the circumstances and number of subjects among whom it is exercised at a given time. If a leader is increasingly powerful, his subjects are by definition less so. Someone must give up his power in order for someone else to have more of it. This coefficient is not a fixed property; the overall amount of power within a social group grows or diminishes as circumstances change. For example, an ecological catastrophe that leads to a sharply reduced food supply will diminish the power of the entire group, even though some may remain more powerful relative to others. Conversely, economic expansion can lead to the establishment of increasingly powerful groups within the hierarchy that may challenge the authority of the central power, leading to an increasing diffusion of state power among greater numbers of subjects (e.g., the Magna Carta).

In modern democracies, the state retains a great deal of power, but its authority is restrained through the institutionalization of dissent: elected government, free speech, contracts, courts of law, labor unions, and so on. This does not mean that such societies are less powerful than those ruled by dictators; indeed, the outcome of the Second World War is a clear demonstration that elected governments can be highly effective at protecting their interests. But the wartime alliance of the world's most advanced democracy with its most centralized dictatorship also demonstrates that the accumulation and exercise of power can be successful in many guises. Whether or not democratic government, through the empowerment of its subject people, is potentially the most powerful form of rule, as some have posited, is a moot argument. What makes a group of individuals successful is not the specific means by which it distributes power, but the effectiveness of its power coefficient in balancing the competing forces that threaten to tear apart even the most stable groups. This is as true for nation-states as it is for families, organizations and workplaces.


We have seen how the continual striving of man for comparative advantage over his fellow creatures ensures that the sum total of available power within a social group does not diminish, except by the intervention of extrinsic forces. We see this borne out in daily life.

Picture a school conference room, with seats around the table for about a dozen people. At one end is the superintendent, at the other the mayor of the local village. The other seats are occupied by several school administrators, subservient to the superintendent; several village officials, there at the behest of the mayor; and several residents who requested the meeting. The purpose is to seek the school district's support against the village in a matter of local importance to these individuals. The superintendent is the nominal host, and, as the last to enter the room, the meeting does not begin without him. When he does enter, he begins by stating the matter at hand. Almost before he can finish, others dispute his very description of the matter, and a lively debate ensues between the mayor and his officials and the residents. The superintendent hardly utters another word during the course of the meeting.

Why is he silent? Because the superintendent's source of power resides solely within his control of the school, and his influence on the proceedings is symbolic and not substantive. The resolution of the matter rests entirely with the mayor. If, however, the mayor were to ask the superintendent for his perspective on the matter, and the superintendent stated a contrary position, power would shift slightly to the other end of the table. But the mayor, aware that he has legal control over the decision and that soliciting the superintendent's opinion could only serve to diminish his political authority, carefully avoids eliciting the superintendent's views. By the same token, if the superintendent sought to accentuate his own power at the expense of the mayor's, he has every opportunity, as the meeting's host, to interject at any point. However, since this matter is of little importance to himself or to the school, and challenging the mayor could lead to a conflict in which he might not prevail, he chooses not to intervene.

Since the village officials owe their positions to the mayor's political largesse, they take his side entirely. Since the school administrators owe their positions to the superintendent, they remain, like him, on the sidelines.

This scenario illustrates that power has two essential elements: the ability to give, and the ability to take away. This can also be defined as the power to create and the power to destroy. In this example, the superintendent has nothing to bestow on his interlocutors that could redound to his own benefit; his only gain could be a relative political advantage over the mayor, which he gauges to be insufficient to merit the expense of his own political capital. The mayor, on the other hand, has it within his power to allow or deny the desired object of his beseeching constituents, and he carefully nurses that power to ensure it does not slip from his fingers into other people's hands. Both leaders' ability to inhibit the ambitions of their subordinates embodies the threat of destruction, guaranteeing loyalty and thus adding to the aggregate of their power.

Like all power, the employer's authority over his workers resides in his ability to give (hire) or take away (fire). Many people have had the experience of giving several weeks' notice upon resigning from a job only to find themselves completely ignored by their boss from the moment they stated their intention to leave. Once the power to fire is removed from the boss's arsenal, his authority over the employee virtually disappears, and the employee is no longer of any value.

This power is not absolute. In the first place, one of the devil's bargains of capitalism is that, just as a boss can fire someone at any time (barring labor agreements and other legal restrictions), the employee can also depart at any time. This right to leave one's job is of little avail to a worker in a town with only one employer — a coal mine, for example — where the miners are deliberately kept in a state of poverty and debt which makes them virtual prisoners. By and large, however, the employer's power extends only to the limits of his ability to command the employee's work output.

The coal mine example, however, is salutary in the history of labor. The "progress" of the labor movement is illusory, as it has merely established concentrations of power elsewhere than in the boss's office or in the corporate board room. Such changes were not inevitable and could easily regress. There is a continual struggle among the various power centers within any organization, and those who have the ability to gather increased authority within their own center will certainly do so. This is not the result of malevolence or a desire for conquest — although individual humans obviously do exhibit these characteristics — but primarily a consequence of an incessant tug-of-war in the balance of power. In "A Study of History", Toynbee observed that when the line between civilization and barbarism ceases to advance in civilization's favor, the line will move to the advantage of barbarism. In its essence, this expresses the fundamental human struggle for advantage through power. If workers do not continually advance their cause, employers will advance theirs, and vice versa. Labor laws in relatively free societies are constructed, at least in theory, to prevent power from being concentrated in too few hands, so that abuses of power are less likely and, when they do occur, can be adjudicated. Those who advocate the relaxing of such laws, on the grounds that widely improved conditions for workers render them unnecessary, either do not understand the nature of power, or understand it only too well. The loosening of restrictions on employers will cause power to flow again in their direction, an outcome highly desired by employers, their investors and their allies in politics. Conversely, the enhancement of workers' rights redounds to the benefit of workers and the detriment of stockholders.


It needs to be reiterated that power is not strictly a zero-sum game. The overall coefficient of power is not static. Many large corporations successfully find a balance between the power of ownership and the power of labor, to the advantage of both, often for many decades of expanding income for all. It also needs to be reaffirmed that, while enlightened thinkers may consider this relative parity part of an inevitable march toward human freedom, it is in fact a variation on an illusion that Stephen Jay Gould called "progressivism". In biology, it is the idea that the evolution of animal species tends towards greater complexity, which Gould argued is demonstrably untrue: countless species of comparable simplicity have endured far longer than the supposedly "higher" animals which evolved only very recently in biological time. There was nothing inevitable about the appearance of man or any other relatively intelligent species; circumstances were simply advantageous for their development. Similarly, the eradication of a human society populated only by the powerful and the powerless, in favor of one in which power is distributed more widely, is also not inevitable. Those who wish to see this trend in human affairs continue will be required to maintain constant vigilance, just as the mayor had to carefully guard against the dissipation of his small circle of power even in the most insignificant of encounters.

One of the other illusory phenomena described by Gould is "gradualism." Regarding living organisms, he refuted the idea that change in nature happens in small stages. Regarding human relationships, it is a warning that the balance of power can change very rapidly. Revolutions have overturned deeply entrenched centers of state power, from 18th-century France to 20th-century Iran, only to have their own power challenged or undermined within decades by their own excesses. People are usually mistaken in their belief that the overthrow of a repressive regime signals the end of the abuse of power; more often than not, power is subsequently concentrated in the hands of others who are at least as abusive as the rulers they supplanted. (Hence the expression, "Revolutions eat their own children.") There is nothing inevitable about this, either; a few revolutions have indeed led to more enlightened rule, but in these cases power was not eliminated as such but effectively distributed among individuals and institutions in such a way as to reduce the likelihood of further abuse. In the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, some of the resulting nation-states have been able to build stable political entities in which power is widely shared, while others with weak institutions experienced voids of power at the center which enabled autocracy to return with varying degrees of repression.


It is a curiosity of human social organization that power tends to concentrate in the hands of a small number of usually male individuals. Even where the distribution of power is decentralized, such as in parliaments or city councils, the constitutions of such power-sharing arrangements invariably call for the existence of some kind of executive position. From small tribes to the United Nations, the executive model is virtually ubiquitous.

Where this model derives from is open to anthropological, sociological and psychological conjecture. An obvious answer is the nuclear family with the father at its head, but this presupposes that families have always been organized in precisely this way, and that paternal authority is automatically transferable to tribal or governmental authority. Indeed, studies of the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups suggest a somewhat differently balanced power arrangement. The women's gathering, which provides a steadier and more reliable source of food than the men's hunting, is a countervailing force against the men's superior physical dominance. Thus, the social balance is tilted another way, and the male hierarchy is not as pronounced. Nonetheless, in virtually every known settled community, from Nineveh to the modern metropolis, there has been a man (or, more recently, a woman) in charge.

The bestowal of power upon a single individual hardly ensures its permanence. Being anointed (supposedly) by a deity, or commanding great numbers of men in arms, provides no insurance against challenges to one's authority. As Bolingbroke said to King Henry IV, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." This must occur to many, if not most, who assume the mantle of leadership. But it does not matter if a ruler is a self-reflecting philosopher king or an autocrat, like Shelley's Ozymandias, who is oblivious to his own mortality. Power is continuously in flux, and competing human ambition guarantees that no regime can last forever. Some absolute rulers go to great lengths to institutionalize their rule, imagining that vast state bureaucracies and elaborate ideologies to which millions owe their lives and livelihoods are bulwarks against encroaching calamity. But even the totalitarian fortress of the Soviet Union lasted just 70 years, Hitler's Germany little more than 12. In some cases, it might be argued, the tighter the grip the more unsure the grasp. Indeed, after the fall of a dictator, it often seems impossible to understand why his power was so absolute. If, in the end, his throne was toppled so easily, of what did his great power consist in the first place? How could he have lost control as easily as some local bully?

This is a great paradox: If power is so tenuous, how is it possible for anyone to accumulate so much of it? And where exactly does it reside?

The question is elucidated by considering the innumerable examples of shifting power, often dramatically and unexpectedly, between leaders and their followers. Why does the general obey the command of his president? In a society with long traditions of military service and stable politics, the question may seem almost inconceivable. Can you imagine an American general openly defying the President of the United States? In fact, there are two well-known examples: General McLellan's ignoring President Lincoln's commands to attack the Confederate armies during the early period of the Civil War, and General MacArthur's disobedience of President Truman's orders during the Korean War. In both cases, the law prevailed and the commander in chief ultimately removed the general — but not without political risk. It is one of the common errors of people in power that their authority derives from their position. Whatever specific authority a ruler may hold under the law, his power in fact resides primarily in his ability to command the loyalty of his citizens or subjects. Why military coups are common in some countries (in Honduras recently, for example) but never in others, is mainly a function of the population's relative commitment to the body politic. Put another way, if the perpetuation of the existing power arrangement is in a citizen's best interest, he will continue to support it. Where frequent changes in government bear little consequence to the life of the individual, there is no incentive for anyone other than the ruler's closest associates to support the regime of the moment. When, whether through circumstance or error, a leader's power is seen to have ebbed, loyalty to the leader may decline even as loyalty to the system remains intact. Thus power may be sustained by a range of factors — coercion, persuasion, popularity, patronage, patriotism — any of which may be effective in various combinations, and any of which may fail at any time. The emperor indeed has no clothes, which is precisely why leaders go to such great lengths to display the trappings of power.

The executive's power is useless to others unless it provides benefits. These benefits may be tangible or illusory, but without them power cannot be sustained for any length of time. A corporate boss who announces his retirement in, say, a year, declaring that he will not be a lame duck, completely misunderstands the nature of power. Regardless of what he says, his departure is effectively a surrender of power, a reality that will be immediately evident to everyone except himself. As an element of nature, power abhors a vacuum, a fact that finds itself embodied even in this rhetorical description of it. With the boss's departure, power will necessarily flow to others who will soon be in a position to bestow political and material largesse, and those whose interests are served by attaching themselves to power, or by standing in opposition to it, will immediately direct their attention to where their energies are best expended. This is dramatized in painful detail in "King Lear", in which the king prematurely divides his kingdom among his avaricious daughters and sons-in-law. As king, Lear was a fearsome bully, but the moment he surrenders his crown, his children openly defy him with impunity. His power is shown to derive not from the force of his personality or even from the potent symbol of the crown on his head, but from his ability to give something of value to his subjects, including his children. Once he no longer possesses what was in his authority to give, his power drains from his person.

A governor in his final months of office is of little interest to anyone, beyond the executive authority vested in his office by law. By contrast, a candidate who has a reasonable chance of winning commands attention in direct proportion to the gifts he will be empowered to bestow on his friends, or the destruction he will be able to wreak on his foes, if he succeeds in being elected. This is why candidates who drop out of a race and dutifully throw their support behind another candidate almost instantly disappear from public view. Without an immediate chance of attaining power, their influence is, at least for now, insufficient to command the spotlight.


Lord Acton's well-trodden observation — that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely — defines an aspect of power's exercise, not its essence. It is difficult to argue that the sudden death of a physically abusive husband may not improve the life of his long-suffering wife, or that the departure of a sadistic supervisor in favor of a better-liked one may not improve the lot of the staff. But while it is natural for people to hope that the ascension of a particular ruler or ruling dynasty will usher in an era in which power is no longer exercised solely for the benefit of a self-selected few, it is a mistake to suppose that power and its exercise can be expunged from the human family. We in our particular society like to imagine that it is possible to achieve a state in which power is so diffuse as to be unrecognizable as such, a kind of utopian ideal in which individuals have nothing to fear from the power of others and thereby enjoy perfect liberty. It is arguable whether such a state would even be beneficial to the human psyche, but it is indisputable that most civilizations have very different concepts of the perfect society. Muslim fundamentalists, unreformed communists and nationalists of many stripes also worship utopian ideals, which have nothing in common except that they are in direct conflict with one another. The clash of ambition and the fear of insecurity ensure that power will always seek to find equilibrium. It is a struggle that can be managed, but the illusion that the balance of power favors any particular philosophy or ideology will no doubt lead to follies as yet unfathomed.

July 27, 2009

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