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The Nature of Power

The Nature of Power

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Published by Jordan Greenhall
Written about a decade ago. Seems increasingly appropriate to think about.
Written about a decade ago. Seems increasingly appropriate to think about.

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Published by: Jordan Greenhall on Jun 05, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The nature of power.I think that there are two major axes around which human power is deployed. One isexternal, the other internal. External power manifests itself in the form of the distributionof bodies – one is powerful to the degree to which one can influence the world todistribute bodies in the way that one desires. This might be economic power (I can fly toChicago whenever I want, something that is simply out of the reach of a peasant inmexico); political power (I can cause an entire army of men to organize and deploy witha single word); military power (and they, in turn, can cause whole nations to obey mycommand).Internal power manifests itself as the felt and actual consequences of these distributions.I may not be able to move a nation to my will, but I can entirely choose how I feel aboutit. Because internal power is so, well, internal, it can seem less “powerful” – but weshould never underestimate the power of a man who can choose to live at an existentiallevel however he wishes – regardless of the external circumstance. The great king who ishappy only when he is in control of the world around him is always going to be lesshappy and satisfied than the lone monk who is happy regardless of what the world throwsat him. Not that happiness is any key measure – only that it allows an index of the potency of power.In physics, the measure of electrical power is the product of electrical charge (how manyelectrons you are moving) and field intensity (how hard it is to move them). Physicsgives us many metaphors of power that will be useful to think about human power.Power is very closely related to energy. Indeed, power is the playing-out of energy intime. A gallon of gas contains so much energy – so much “potential” to do something.The horsepower of a gasoline engine is a measure of how much of this energy the enginecan deploy in a given time. The more horsepower, the more energy can be put to use in agiven unit of time. (As a side note, there are only two ways you can increase thehorsepower of an engine – you can either increase its efficiency, the degree to which it isable to deploy the energy in the gasoline it uses, or you can increase the amount of gasoline it consumes in a unit time. A jet engine, for example, is much more efficientthan a piston engine – so produces more power per gallon of gasoline.)This is power – A very brute and simple manifestation of power. If I have a mass that Iwant to accelerate, I have to deploy a force. The more power I have, the more force I candeploy in a given unit of time. With a lot of power, I can accelerate a mass to highspeeds quickly. This is, of course, incredibly powerful – it is the basis of motorizedtransport, powered weapons and construction machinery. In the human domain, it is perhaps closest to the consequences of these physical manifestations: the movement of  peoples, the clash of armies, the sort of brute movements of bodies through space withouta whole lot of subtlety. Big, macro forces like food and energy resources – the controloff which affords big shifts in the ability to control space. And people.Mechanical motion is, notoriously, both reversible and entropic. That is, if it takes you
ten units of power to accelerate a mass to a certain velocity; it will get you ten units of  power if you decelerate it back to where you started. Power-in, power-out. You get outexactly what you put in. And, since the system is entropic, it is always losing andwasting power (friction, turbulence, etc.). You actually always get out a bit less than you put in. There is an essential scarcity here.But then we can look at another kind of power. When a cell replicates into another cell,there is a tremendous amount of power involved. But, this time, power of a differentorder. It is still all about the deployment of energy – but now not for the purpose of moving a mass in space – now for the purpose of the creation and dissolution of forms.The delicate, seemingly architected, bonding of chemical to chemical and mapping of  protein to protein. Here power is a measure of throughput – the number of transactionsthat can be completed in a given unit of time. Metabolism. What a beautiful engine – that takes in sugar and outputs not motion but form. Body and mind. This is a verysideways turning. A “capture” of the simple process of mechanical power into a rococomechanism that flows into a, well, completely different form. Like a music box thatconverts simple mechanical energy (the turning of the key, the tension of the spring) intoa song and the twirling of a dancer on a pedestal. Energy converted to energy convertedto energy by a network of translation mechanisms. Outputting something of an entirelydifferent nature – and something of a much more enduring value.This more subtle kind of power behaves a little differently. When you turn the key onyour music box, the resulting effect requires the input of the mechanical energy thattightens the spring. But the output is very different indeed. The music bears no relationto the power that you put in. Instead, the process of production – the creation of the song,the invention of the technique to convert the song to some form of recording, the actualmanufacture of that object in the music-box, the assembly of the box and the tying of themusic system to the spring – all of this is an input of energy that is non-entropic andenables an output that is qualitatively novel. Compare turning the key to get noise withturning the key to get The Ode to Joy.Power is not just the deployment of power in a mechanical sense, it is also the creation of  power. The creation of power-systems that transform and ramify power in deep andcomplex ways.This, of course, is the structure of the vast majority of human power. We are embeddedin a vast network of translation mechanisms that tie us all together. Mechanisms thathave been constructed over the total of historical time and have encoded (memorized) particular mechanisms for the re-production of power. When a musician plays a song, heis (at the simplest level) converting chemical energy (sugar) into mechanical energy(strumming a guitar for example). This is an exercise of power. But the majority of his power results from his ability to attach his strumming into the vast system of music thathas been built and maintained and trained over thousands of years. Key and meter.Rhythm and reference. We are a trained audience, already primed to resonate at the rightfrequency. The metaphor is not that metaphorical. When you are listening to a song, youcan easily imagine the threads that connect you, the emotions you are feeling, the images
you are seeing, the movements that are created in your body, directly back through to themusician. He is like a puppet-master leveraging an enormous “affect-producingmachine” that was constructed by the history of biology, music and culture. For good or for ill.Almost the totality of external power works like this. A powerful man is not powerful inhimself. He is wearing power. Like a second skin (a power suit?) that he is able tocontrol (to a greater and lesser extent) – and which dramatically magnifies his power.Like the musician who plugs-in to the history of music, any form of external power is a“pulling of threads” that are linked-together in a tight and impersonal mesh. This is whya fool can become (externally) powerful, simply by putting on the suit of “President”.Of course, the threads of a power-system are tightly woven. Wearing a given power system can be as constraining as empowering. The Queen of England surely has much power. But, just as surely, she is as constrained, restricted, constricted, shaped andcajoled by her power system as she is empowered. This, I think, is the trap that manyfind themselves in. As someone powerless, you might look at the powerful and feel themmore free than you – simply because they have access to a more potent power-system.But unless you fully understand the degree to which they are at the mercy of their power-system, you don’t know the whole story. Beware what you seek. In many ways, theslave-owner is as much a victim as the slave.Much of the potency of power-systems comes from their unconscious, almost “law of nature” coercive impact on people. The vast majority of people just don’t think to behavedifferently. Much of this is necessary. Teams go to great effort to create a collective power-system that allows them to work with a single, seamless will. By so doing, theydramatically increase their collective power. If each member of a team had to consider and define his role at each moment in a game, they wouldn’t be a team at all. Whileindividuals can be more or less capable than other individuals, the differential between power systems is even more significant – precisely because a power system can integratea potentially indefinite mass of people into its unified will.The majority of blocks and behaviors that people feel imposing an external will on themstem from the various nested power systems that make up society. That you ought to dothis, or ought to do that. Even as a child, you begin to feel the ought nature of emergent power systems. Whatever position you have in the power system, you are in the power system and fell the tug of its obligations, the consequences of its valuations andevaluations. All of racism is and was a vast power system – the consequences of whichare clearly still being played-out. All of racism – and all of each and every role that onecan play in society. A role is defined by the power systems that grab ahold of it andcause it to dance in one way or another, invest it with attributes and potentialities (strongor weak). Large and small – most of our actions are determined by the integrated totalityof the various power systems. Very little freedom actually exists in the world.Yet, we need our power-systems. At an economic level, humanity has expanded well beyond our ability to provide for our own survival using simple, ephemeral (tribal) modes

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