On Power: Its Forms and Uses

21st century schizoid man

I prepared for students of the General Paper H1 module, intended as a sort of primer for Politics and Governance. It’s not meant to be a serious piece of academic writing or anything, but I thought I’d put it here in case anyone finds it useful.


This is not intended to be an authoritative study, but rather an introduction to a particular way of thinking about power, politics, and governance. It is also not meant to serve as any kind of model essay. Along the way, I’ll be referring to various movements, theories, and people (thinkers, leaders, etc.): please take these allusions as points of reference rather than citations, for you to follow-up on by doing some more in-depth reading.

On Power

“Power” has ambivalent connotations. On the one hand, we associate it with potency, competence, and ability, all of which are universally cherished; on the other, especially post-Arab Spring and post-Edward Snowdon, we tend to be wary or suspicious of it and those who seek it openly, because it has become clear in this century that the Digital Revolution has not made power any less insidious or easy to abuse.

Objectively speaking, “power” can refer to any means of realising one’s desired outcomes. While we perhaps most immediately identify it with its more overt displays in the form of institutionalised power (states, large organisations, military force), power can also refer to influence exerted in more subtle ways: the emphasis given to the contrasting terms “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” (neither side identifies as “pro-death” or “anti-choice”) in the abortion debate suggests that the ability to control the language and perceptions of a matter are equally important. On a frivolous note, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an activist organisation, has been pushing the re-naming of fish to “sea-kittens”, presumably in an attempt to make the creatures cuter and more adorable, and therefore less likely to end up caught in nets or served with tartar sauce. 

The most resounding statement on power and its uses in the popular media is probably Uncle Ben’s immortal maxim, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Insipid as it is, especially after several terrible Spider-Man films, the sentiment has a strong pedigree, resonating with the teachings of Marx, Confucius, and the Bible, among others. Those who wield power are expected to do so in line with certain principles. 

Modern discourse on power identifies two important principles:

1. Everyone has power

2. Power-relationships are always reciprocal

On Power: Its Forms, or Everyone has power

Everyone has power, although not necessarily in the form we might desire. The ability to act on and alter the world and people around us gives us power. 

Consider two beggars, each of whom receives alms from a passer-by. Conventionally, we might consider such abject individuals powerless, and at the mercy of everyone else. Yet one may choose to receive his alms with good cheer and gratitude, while the other may choose to berate their benefactor: in each case, the beggar demonstrates his ability to influence others. Individually, this influence may not amount to much — a feeling of momentary satisfaction, or outrage, which quickly fades — but collectively, even such people can bring about great change. 

Consider the monk Thich Quang Duc, whose self-immolation in Saigon to protest the oppression of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, sparked off widespread unrest that ended in the assassination of the head-of-state during a military coup. Does this not demonstrate that even if the full extent of one’s influence extends only over whether one lives or dies, that such influence, at the right time and place, can be meaningful? 

Consider also how apparently mighty monolithic individuals and monolithic regimes have suffered failure. The United States military tends to heavily outclass its opposition in terms of fighting-strength, resources, and the sophistication and power of its equipment, yet in various conflict-theatres (Vietnam, Iraq post-Operation Desert Freedom, the global War on Terror), it has suffered setback after setback, because the form which its power takes (elite soldiers, extreme precision, overwhelming force) is not appropriate for addressing the nature of some conflicts (subversive movements, vehemently-different ideologies, superior local knowledge). General Petraeus’ genius as a military commander participating in the invasion of Iraq in the Noughties was linked not only to his strategic prowess, but also his recognition that winning hearts and minds was as important as winning battles, and he devoted a great deal of his energy to not only occupying territory, but also overseeing the reconstruction of infrastructure and utilities, providing safety and security to the people, and promoting local leadership through elections.

Thus we see that power takes a variety of forms, each with its own nature and proper use. I include a list and possible taxonomy: it is not definitive.

‘Hard’ power

The form with which we are most familiar; power in its least subtle aspect. These are usually relevant at the state level; they could easily scale down to the individual level too.

• Military force

◦ e.g. Quantity and quality of personnel and equipment

◦ e.g. Technological advantage

◦ e.g. Alliances

◦ may be roughly approximate to physical prowess

• Demographic superiority (tyranny of the majority?)

• Economic dominance

◦ e.g. Balance-of-trade dominance

◦ e.g. Comparative advantage

◦ e.g. Natural resources

◦ roughly approximate to personal wealth

• Institutional advantage

◦ e.g. Legal precedent

◦ e.g. Official status

◦ e.g. Codified doctrine

◦ roughly approximate to official position (e.g., someone who holds an official appointment such as a police officer, a Member of Parliament, a judge etc.)

‘Soft’ power

Ability to sway opinions, behaviour, and beliefs without coercion.

• Cultural appeal

◦ fashions and trends (e.g. “Hallyu Diplomacy”, part of the 21st C “Korean wave” including Gangnam Style, K-Pop, etc)

◦ way of life (PM Goh Chok Tong’s 1984 aspiration towards a “Swiss standard of living”)

◦ prestige (the use of Italian and German for classical opera; Savile Row)

◦ roughly approximate to cultural capital (savoir faire, multilingualism, aesthetic sensitivity, empathy etc.)

• Policies and actions

◦ consistency (Israel claims the Holocaust as part of its heritage, but systematically oppresses people in Palestine)

◦ fairness (the North American Free Trade Agreement forced Mexico to remove tariffs on imported American maize, but allows the US to heavily subsidise its own corn farmers)

◦ altruism (Australian PM Tony Abbott brings up Australia’s disaster relief payments to Indonesia while appealing for Indonesia to show clemency to drug traffickers facing capital punishment)

◦ might correspond to observable personal conduct (honesty, reliability, sincerity etc.)

• Values

◦ ideology

▪ democracy?

▪ capitalism?

▪ civil liberties?

▪ meritocracy?

• Popular appeal/support

◦ mass protests vs institutionalised authority (e.g. Arab Spring; Tiananmen Square; Hong Kong’s 2014 “umbrella revolution”; Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement; Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement)

◦ collective action (e.g. strikes)

◦ crowdsourced funding in lieu of subsidies/official contracts (e.g. the independent music movement enabled by platforms like iTunes, Amazon, Kickstarter, Patreon etc.)

◦ creativity and innovation (e.g. Apple Inc.’s 21st C success with the iPod, iPhone, OSX, Macbook may be attributed to smart branding, slick design, high standards)

Remember the example of Quang Duc, the monk who burned himself to death in public? While the gesture was undoubtedly powerful, and clearly a sign of his great commitment and determination, one wonders if it would have had the same impact had American journalists not been given advance-warning the day before. 

On Power: Its Uses, or Power-relationships are always reciprocal

As ‘power’ refers to one’s ability to influence others, it is inevitably exercised not in a vacuum but as part of a relationship. And while it is easy to characterise large, wealthy organisations and individuals as holding all the power, they generally only exercise that power with the tacit collusion of those upon whose labour they depend.

Consider the power of collective action by a union. While an employer appears to have a great deal of power over his employees, as he controls their livelihood, the workers are capable of exerting significant amounts of influence when they take collective action. Strikes and sit-ins can disrupt the profitability of enterprises, do long-term damage to the reputations of corporations, and paralyse entire communities as essential services shut down.

In September 2008, a two-month strike cost Boeing $2 billion; in August 1997, a mere two-week strike cost the United Parcel Service $650 million when postal workers forced the company to negotiate, resulting in an increase in pay and a reduction in the use of contract-labourers who were not eligible for benefits. Martin Luther King Jr.. and Gandhi made their mark in the annals of history by leading nonviolent movements that used passive disobedience to bring immensely powerful and oppressive regime to their knees, fighting entrenched hard power with the soft power of public opinion. 

Clearly, the historical record shows us that while hard power may represent the most obtrusive and intrusive use of power, soft power, if used intelligently, can enable apparently-disempowered people to nonetheless wield a great deal of influence. The vast potential of collective action provides the main impetus for people to organise themselves into associations and organisations, the most familiar form of which would be the modern government. 

Governance: Why People Form Governments

Governments can wield great power in both domestic and foreign affairs, but they accrue and use that power by the consent of the governed. Historical feudal power structures make the monarch reliant on the fealty and loyalty that his subjects bear to him personally. In modern democratic systems, ruling parties must court the public’s goodwill and continued trust, being reliant on their mandate at the ballot. The revolutions of the 18th century and the concomitant rise of nationalist movements all over the world (giving birth to new nations like Italy and Germany) cemented the idea of the social contract, the foundation of modern democracy.

The idea of the social contract enshrines the belief that the people surrender certain powers to the government in exchange for the government’s using those powers responsibly for the betterment of society. In a more ancient system, this responsibility was sometimes referred to as noblesse oblige; these days, we refer to the government’s responsibility and its mandate. In both these systems, the power-relationship between the individual and the state was always reciprocal: the individual owed the state adherence to the laws of the land, the taxation of his income, and in certain circumstances, his service for labour or defence; in exchange, the state owes the individual the guarantee of certain rights and freedoms, his safety, and effective governance of the nation. 

Why would anyone surrender their own rights, their hard-earned income, and their service to the state? Economics tells us that in certain areas, collective action is vastly more efficient than individual action due to economies of scale, enabling the state to make more efficient use of taxes to build infrastructure and provide certain goods and services. Allocation of resources and the coordination and planning of large-scale projects may also be more effectively managed by a central authority, preventing shortages or redundant surpluses. A central authority that provides regulation and enforcement may also provide a greater degree of consistency in that regulation and enforcement, enabling such social necessities as a stable currency and access to justice. Furthermore, there are certain functions that the community may desperately require filled, that individuals may be reluctant to provide on their own, such as military service, which the state must then compel from citizens through conscription or a draft. No matter what form a state’s manifestation of power may take, however, its ultimate function must be for the good of its society and the protection of its people. 

Unfortunately, the is not always the case. Sometimes, governments fail due to pure ineffectiveness: a government that is unable to fulfil the expectations of its electorate may find itself losing its mandate and support, and be overthrown or replaced through the electoral process. In other instances, however, government failure may be more insidious, protracted, and harmful, especially when the people are unable to act decisively to impose consequences on their governments. 

How People Allow Their Governments To Fail

In order for the social contract to be protected, citizens must retain some power to compel their governing representatives to make certain decisions, in order to prevent an empowered elite from abusing its vested authority. The degree to which a society can restrain the abuses of its government is referred to as its level of accountability

In order for people to be able to hold their government accountable, a number of preconditions must exist. The people must be able to first of all be made aware of whatever undesirable behaviour their government is perpetuating; they must then be able to impose consequences on that government, through lobbying, collective action, and civil disobedience. Where these options are not available, desperate populations may resort to outright rebellion, the likes of which are raging in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In some cases, populations may fall under the sway of unelected alternative governments, such as in Mexico or Brazil, where drug-lords earn the loyalty of people by providing protection and utilities which their own proper governments may be unable to provide. 

For the last half-century, the mass media has provided the main avenue for people to realise the first of these conditions. Prior to that, the invention of the printing press and the rise of mass literacy already enabled collective action on a large scale, but the impact of the mass media was greatly magnified when technology enabled images of conflict-zones and atrocities to reach people in their own homes, arriving unsolicited and unanticipated. The Vietnam War made governments aware that public opinion at home could potentially sway, or even dissipate entirely, their ability to achieve their aims, and since then war journalism has been a persistent feature in every conflict-zone, with specially-‘embedded’ journalists attached to military units involved in the invasion of Afghanistan. 

The proliferation of the new media and the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ led many to believe that people would now enjoy greater access to information, and thereby more transparent governance, than ever. Wikileaks, founded in 2006, has released millions of confidential government communiques, containing sensitive information, in order to promote greater transparency and accountability, and has had some success. As part of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010, Tunisia’s President Zine ben-Abidine ben Ali was deposed in a series of violent protests partly inspired by his lavish lifestyle at the expense of the people: secret communications between the US Ambassador and Washington revealed that the president’s palatial home was staffed with servants, his meals included items such as ice-cream flown in from France, and he owned a pet tiger. Outrage at this insensitivity contributed to the discontent that the people felt, eventually driving them to the streets after Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire when his business was raided by officials due to his inability to pay the required bribes. Whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowdon have drawn attention to the military atrocities committed in Iraq and to the NSA’s routine violation of privacies through Wikileaks, prompting public discussions and official investigations.

The promise of new media and citizen journalism for more transparent and responsible governments has yet to be fully realised, however. Governments and similarly-sized organisations have access to a range of options that might render the ability of citizens to investigate and expose malfeasance (wrongdoing) irrelevant or suicidal. New forms of data analytics and more powerful sorting-algorithms have made online anonymity and net-neutrality no longer the guarantees they used to be. Coupled with the proliferation of public surveillance infrastructure such as the new ubiquity of closed-circuit cameras, governments and large organisations have unparalleled power to monitor their citizens and consumers. Facial-recognition and reverse-image-searching technologies now enable security agencies to link any image captured on public cameras to that person’s social media profile, and records of credit card payments can be used to create intricately-detailed profiles of consumer behaviour, which can in turn be data-mined by behavioural scientists to create predictive models of human behaviour. More governments are investing heavily in so-called “big data”: industrial-scale cacheing of information (messages, emails, chat-logs and so on) combined with sophisticated search-algorithms can be used to identify potential troublemakers by their choice of words and syntax, and allow them to be placed under pre-emptive surveillance. 

What’s worse is that as public awareness of this grows, people are likely to start self-censoring, choosing to forego participation in actively promoting accountability, in order to protect themselves from accusations of sedition and conspiracy. 

John Bentham Mill, an economist and philosopher, proposed a new model of prison in the 19th Century. Rather than having prisons patrolled and staffed by large numbers of wardens and orderlies, he suggested building a cylindrical structure, with prisoners in cells facing the interior, in the middle of which would be an observation platform. The occupants of the platform would be hidden from view, while every prisoner would be in direct line-of-sight of the platform. As the prisoners could never tell when they were being watched, they would regulate their own behaviour for fear of being observed, in time learning to behave appropriately whether or not the observation platform was even manned, creating people who could be controlled not by surveillance, but by the threat of surveillance. He called this system a “panopticon”, or all-seeing, system. The linguist and philosopher Michel Foucault would then use this panopticon as a metaphor for government control: by cracking down on vocal and outstanding opponents, an authority can effectively deter opposition by forcing citizens and consumers to become self-policing, ultimately making them voluntarily limit their own ability to protest against malfeasance. 

While digital technologies have enabled people to exchange ideas and expose wrongdoing on a much grander scale, the proliferation and intrusiveness of both social networks and public surveillance technology make telecommunications a two-edged sword. We see that although technological innovation can alter the balance of power between authorities and the masses, that the exercise of power remains a reciprocal affair. If the use of power, both hard and soft, is to be regulated in a responsible fashion, all parties in the power-relationship must continue the process of negotiation that is intrinsic to all good relationships. 

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