The world is power mad. The game to get and keep power drives history, ruins lives and despoils the land. It’s easy to feel powerless when we look at world events and wonder: what can one person do to change things?
We need a new way of looking at power and a new way to feel powerful. If we can do that, we may find more ways to change the world than we think possible.
Noam Chomsky makes an interesting comparison between the response he gets from different audiences. People who attend his talks in the West, who are relatively privileged, often ask for solutions and seem to feel powerless. But people who attend in poorer countries, who are facing serious problems, come to him at the end and tell him what they’re doing to change things. As Chomsky says in How the World Works:
“In places like that, people never ask, What should I do? They say, Here’s what I’m doing. What do you think about it? Maybe they’d like reactions or suggestions, but they’re already dealing with the problem. They’re not sitting around waiting for a magic answer, which doesn’t exist.”
The Problem: Power Over
Power is often seen as a possession – some people have it and others don’t. Those who have power are at the top of the social hierarchy and use their power to dominate those under them. This kind of power is called power-over because it’s about the advantage the powerful person has over others due to their privileged access to resources or influence.
This kind of power is relative to your position in the pecking order. If you have power you can get your own way and make others do what you want. Lack of power in one area can be compensated for in another: after a bad day at the office you might take it out on your family, or kick the cat.
Those without any power spend much of their time being kicked, while those at the top drift into callousness and psychopathy. We’ve seen this play out recently with the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
There are five major problems with power-over:
1. Power leads to feelings of powerlessness
Power-over is a win-lose game where most people end up losing. As you move up the power pyramid, there’s less and less room, so most are squeezed down to the bottom. The masses have limited power which is why we’re fed the idea of ‘choice’. We may not be able to challenge the outcome of the rigged game we’re playing, but we can get a better deal on our car insurance or choose between umpteen versions of the same products to find a bargain. We have a vote, but the overall system doesn’t change.
2. Power is a commodity
Power-over is about having something others don’t so you can control access: like money, weapons, resources, contacts, and information. Anything that could give you an advantage over others becomes a source of power. We see this in politics when votes are bought – the lobbies and interest groups buy influence over political decisions which then distort the outcome of ‘debates’. The oil industry has spent a fortune debunking climate change science, for example.
3. Power creates conflict
Power-over means gaining at someone else’s expense which creates resentment and conflict. Powerful people are always in opposition to somebody, so they constantly worry about threats to their power. Being at the top of the hierarchy might look like a secure position, but it’s actually quite precarious. Fear of losing power or influence is an inherent part of power-over. This can lead to corruption, ruthlessness and dishonesty. It also leads to war.
“In 2010 the global arms expenditure was $1.6 trillion. For perspective, spending 10% of this annually could eliminate extreme poverty and starvation throughout the world.” – Active Hope
4. Power leads to mental rigidity
The trouble with being in power is that you must look powerful. Changing your mind or backing down are seen as a sign of weakness. This means that new information or perspectives get blocked or tuned out. People at the top only want to know what will reinforce their position and keep them in power. Also most people under them are unwilling to rock the boat by disagreeing or being the bearer of bad news. This leads to a lack of flexibility and makes it hard to change, so the system tends to perpetuate itself, becoming increasingly rigid and ossified over time.
5. Powerful people are distrusted
When we think of powerful people, various keywords tend to dominate: dishonest, untrustworthy, out of touch, callous, self-serving, arrogant, unlikable. (Those are just the ones I can write without using **!) When people in authority are seen this way, it makes ordinary people reluctant to become powerful themselves or take on positions of authority.
This is a shame because there is another way…
The Solution: Power With
If we want to find solutions to the many crises we face around the world, we need to move away from the normal way of seeing power and being powerful. It means focusing on how we connect with others and with life, finding common ground and working together with empathy and compassion. This is called power-with and it’s about promoting healing and transformation.
Using power-with involves drawing on inner strengths like courage, determination, imagination, flexibility and openness. It’s based on a win-win model, rather than the win-lose of power-over. Rather than seeking to dominate and control, we seek to understand.
“These qualities… are linked to skills we can develop and practices we can learn. Thinking of courage and determination as things we do rather than things we have helps us to develop these qualities.” – Active Hope
Power-with is about how we relate and interact with each other. We may feel small on our own, but we’re part of the vast web of life and can tap into this power and bring about surprising results. One tiny action can have larger consequences once it interacts with all the other tiny acts around the world.
The environmental crisis has been caused by lots of tiny acts too – acts of plunder and vandalism that seem small when viewed in isolation, but looked at as a whole are devastating. In our own lives, every choice we make to consume something we don’t need, for example, adds up over time. Each individual mindless act multiplied by billions ultimately leads to the destruction of the earth.
Sounds like bad news, but in the same way, we can make small mindful changes to reverse the tide. We’re not separate from each other or the world, so what we do and what we think influences the whole. We might never see the results of our actions, but the ripple of cause and effect will spread through the web anyway.
“..there’s no way that we personally can fix the mess our world is in, but the process of healing and recovery at a planetary level can happen through us and through what we do. For this to happen, we need to play our part. That’s where power-with comes in.” – Active Hope
Empowering yourself to act
Power is what you do, not what you have.
When you see power as a verb it shifts your perception and empowers you to act. Opening to guidance from the larger web of life means your actions become focused on what really needs to be done, not just in general, but specifically by you, in this moment, at this particular location. You can then act on behalf of others and the community, and know that you’re acting for life itself, not just for yourself.
If you want to receive guidance on what to do to help, you could try this exercise from Active Hope. It comes from the Australian rainforest activist John Seed, and it can provide a powerful call to action:
A Letter from Gaia
“If the Earth could speak to us, what would it say? We can take a step toward finding out by imagining the Earth can write through us. On a blank sheet of paper, start a letter to yourself that begins:
Dear [insert your name], this is your mother Gaia writing…
Continue the letter with whatever words come naturally, let your hand do the writing, don’t think about it too much, and just let the words flow. If you’d prefer to start the letter using different words, please do so.”
When I tried this, Gaia was feeling rather splenetic and I had trouble keeping hold of my pen. Perhaps I’ll try again later…
Next time we explore the power of community in Team Spirit