‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ Lord Acton, letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1887
All human societies are characterised by power structures and power struggles. Power is often considered to be a cynical idea with negative connotations. It can suppress and distort, arbitrarily elevating a power elite. Since we cannot avoid the reality of power in human society, how can we best conceive of it and exercise it with virtue?
In a review of David Shambaugh’s recent book ‘China Goes Global : The Partial Power’, Financial Times writer Gideon Rachman (16/17 March 2013), objects to Shambaugh’s thesis that contemporary China has limited power measured in military presence, global networking, culture and intellectual impact. Rachman insists that ‘you don’t need to be a vulgar Marxist to believe that economic power is, ultimately, the basis for most other forms of power’. ‘There is not much ‘’soft power’’ to be derived from poverty’ Rachman concludes.
Thinkers including theologians and intellectual authors will think otherwise. The Christ motif of the crucified one is that power can indeed emerge from total weakness. Christ famously challenged Pontius Pilate’s ‘authoritative’ threats with the response ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’, suggesting for an atheist interpretation that brutal state power is limited in scope and effect, and that an ethical power is of a higher order. At a practical level, Internet technology gives the opportunity and reality of substantial scope of influence to bloggers at very little economic cost.
There is a multitude of sources of power. The power of love drives people often to extreme action, as in the Hindu myth of Ram and Sita, where Ram mobilises every thinkable resource to rescue his beloved Sita. It is well contrasted to the love of power. Rationalists will claim that the power of logic is irrefutable and irresistible. The power of personality, or better, of personal conviction, are powers to be reckoned with.
Power is normally thought of as the ability to force others, to command. The exercise of power soon demonstrates our inner nature, the quality of our spirit. Power alters people’s demeanour. We meet plenty of petty tyrants. We indulge in ‘power dressing’. The litmus test is whether we are enjoying power for itself, or more operationally exercising power responsibly as a servant to virtue’s aims and aspirations.
Democratic society operates a balance of power between the executive, judicial and legislative branches of society. A balance of power prevents tyranny. It also acts against the corruption which Lord Acton correctly observed is the frequent outcome of power. In our personal roles too, we can insist on some balance of power, by freely referring our decisions and actions to colleagues and others, in open transparent and accountable structures.
Power is usually exercised by conferred authority rather than immediate physical force, although authority is presumed to be backed by some ultimate physical force. Authority can be institutional – it derives from a role someone has within an institutional power structure. Such power though is limited, since the moment the person’s back is turned, their control and influence become minimal. Authority can better be inherent. People with authority inherent in their person win the respect of others and are readily heeded. Authority without natural freely given respect is a distortion, and creates tension.
Soft power operates in the sphere of ideology. Persuasion is its tool. It hopes to prepare space for the exercise of some interest group, whether commercial or political.
Power is defined in physics as the rate of doing work. We need power to make things happen, to get things to work. Power enables the fulfilment of potential. We encourage people to realise their own potential and the potential of their contribution with the phrase ‘power to your elbow’. Indeed, the word ‘potential’ shares the same root meaning with the word ‘power’ – it is ‘potent’. Social structures too often restrict this enabling. They focus only on enabling the few, operating through the limiting concept of name recognition, and waste the potential of the many. Power always tends to get concentrated in the hands of the few. We compensate for this with single person vote democracy in the political arena, but not in other walks of life. We then emasculate rather than enable.
Excessive humility or sheer laziness can lead us to eschew the power we need to implement good possibilities. In such cases we wrongly dodge and evade the challenge and the responsibility of assuming and exercising power.
Power without content is threatening, since it only serves ego and its direction of travel is unpredictable, but content without power is a waste of human and social potential.