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The standard theory of power is, as Turner describes it:

‘that power is the capacity to influence other people, that it is conferred by the control of resources (positive and negative outcomes, rewards and costs, information, etc.) that are desired, valued or needed by others and which make them dependent upon the influencing agent for the satisfaction of their needs or reaching their goals, and that different types of resources confer different types of power leading to different kinds of influence.’

Source: Turner, John C. 2005. Explaining the Nature of Power: A Three-process Theory. European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol 35; pp 1 – 22.


Eric Olin Wright:

"Power is one of the most perpetually contested concepts in social theory. Here I want to stress the simple idea of power as the capacity of actors to accomplish things in the world, to generate effects in the world. This definition has both an instrumental and a structural dimension: it is instrumental in that it focuses on the capacities people use to accomplish things in the world; it is structural in that the effectiveness of these capacities depends upon the social structural conditions under which people act. The power of capitalists, for example, depends both upon their wealth and also upon a social structure within which this wealth can be deployed in particular ways. Owning a factory is only a source of power if it is also the case that there is a labor force that is separated from the means of subsistence and must rely on a labor market in order to earn a living, and if there is a set of state institutions that enforce contracts and protect property rights. The simple ownership of this economic resource only becomes a source of real power under appropriate social conditions.

With this definition of power, one of the ways in which forms of power can be differentiated is in terms of the underlying social basis for the capacity to generate effects in the world. In the present context we will distinguish three important forms of power: economic power, based on the control over economic resources; state power, based on control over rule making and rule enforcing capacity over territory; and what I will call social power, based on the capacity to mobilize people for voluntary collective actions of various sorts. As slogans you can say that there are three ways of getting people to do things: you can bribe them; you can force them; you can convince them. These correspond to the exercise of economic power, state power, and social power. Because social power is rooted in voluntary association, and voluntary association is intimately connected persuasion and communication, social power is also closed linked to what might be termed ideological or cultural power. As we shall see, these are closely linked to the distinctions between capitalism, statism, and socialism." (http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/22074)


Turner's Three-process theory

Persuasion: "‘a collective attempt by a group to develop a consensual response to some stimulus situation… Thus a judgement is assumed to be informational, to provide evidence about reality, precisely to the degree that it has ingroup consensual support… the power to get people to believe that certain things are correct.’

Authority: "Authority ‘is the power to control ingroup members because they are persuaded that it is right for a certain person to control them in certain matters…. a person, role or group has the right to prescribe appropriate beliefs, attitudes or behaviour in certain areas… Authority is not direct persuasion but groups confer authority to in order to get things done right. This acceptance of leader authority carries a presumption the leader is likely to be right about the matter in hand and can lead to validation and internalization of the leader’s view under certain conditions.’"

Coercion: "‘Coercion is authority in a dark mirror. It is defined here as the attempt to control a target against their self-will and self-interest through the deployment of human and material resources to constrain and manipulate their behaviour.’"

Source: Turner, John C. 2005. Explaining the Nature of Power: A Three-process Theory. European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol 35; pp 1 – 22.

Stephen Lukes three dimensions of power

From Stephen Lukes at http://www.gdnet.org/middle.php?oid=603

"In his seminal book, Lukes outlines three dimensions of power. The first dimension is the power of A to influence the behaviour of B. This exercise of power is observable and is tied to public conflicts over interests. It is played out in public decision-making processes. Dahl's classical study, 'Who Governs?', defines power in this way.

The second dimension is the power of A to define the agenda, and thus to prevent B from voicing her/his interests in the public negotiation and decision-making process. Potential issues and conflicts are not brought into the open, to the benefit of A and to the detriment of B. This exercise of power can be both overt and covert.

The third dimension is the power of A to define what counts as a grievance, and to mould B's perceptions and preferences in such a way that B accepts that she/he does not have any significant grievances. The power to shape people's thoughts and desires is the most effective kind of power, since it pre-empts conflict and even pre-empts an awareness of possible conflicts. This dimension of power can be played out for example in processes of socialisation, the control of information, and the control of the mass media." (http://www.gdnet.org/middle.php?oid=603)

The Dalh Polarity of Power scale

From the Wikipedia: "One of Robert Dahl’s many contributions is his explication of the varieties of power, which he defines as “A” getting “B” to do what “A” wants. Dahl prefers the more neutral “influence terms,” (Michael G. Roskin) which he arrayed on a scale from best to worst:

1. Rational Persuasion, the nicest form of influence, means telling the truth and explaining why someone should do something, like your doctor convincing you to stop smoking.

2. Manipulative persuasion, a notch lower, means lying or misleading to get someone to do something.

3. Inducement still lower, means offering rewards or punishments to get someone to do something, i.e. like bribery. 4. Power threatens severe punishment, such as jail or loss of job.

5. Coercion is power with no way out; you have to do it.

6. Physical force – is backing up coercion with use or threat of bodily harm.

Thus, we can tell which governments are best; the ones that use influence at the higher end of the scale. The worst use the unpleasant forms of influence at the lower end." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._Dahl)

Domination vs. transformative power

From a seminar on networked politics at http://www.networked-politics.info/research-lines/political-parties-and-representation-systems

"The importance of distinguishing two senses of power:

Power 1: as transformative capacity

Power 2: as domination, as involving an asymmetry between those with power and those over whom power is exercised.

The recent reassertion of power as transformative capacity first by the feminist and also radical trade union student and community movements of the late ’60s and ’70s and more recently by the global justice movement of the late ’90s underpins and sustains a far wider understanding of the scope of politics beyond the traditional focus on state, government and legislation. This recognition of the importance of power as trans- formative capacity and an associated enlargement of the definition of politics, also lays the basis for rethinking representation. It suggests a direction of strategic thinking about social transformation which goes beyond the coun- ter position of movement forms of democracy on the one hand, and representation – as “making present” – on the other. It implies the need to inquire into forms, conditions and limits on representation as a way of “making present” within the political system, movements and struggles and the sources of transformative capacity that they contain or indicate.

This implies that rethinking political organisation must be guided by investigating and understanding the present sources of transformative capacity; and this in turn re- quires recognition of the third point of the search 3. The multiplicity of levels of creative human activity – all of which are potential locations of transformative capacities.

  • The multiplicity of levels of creative human activity – all of which are potential locations of transformative capacities.

This involves an understanding of social reality as consist- ing of at least four levels: • interactions/relationship between people; • enduring social structures that pre-exist particular indi- viduals and relationships; • the formation and character of human personality and consciousness; • transactions and relations with nature.

Social movements and struggles involve all these levels of social being but their importance will vary from case to case, as will the appropriate forms of political organisation.

Just to list these indicates the dramatic enlargement of politics which flows from a recognition of power as trans- formative capacity and also points to the importance of a multiplicity of autonomous levels to politics. It also indi- cates the complexity of giving organisational reality to the idea of representation as “making present” autonomous forces for democratic transformation. The other side of this enlargement of politics and recogni- tion of the different levels at which transformative activity takes place is the four point of the search: 4. A radical development in our understanding of the mechanism of social change.

  • We are working with a knowledge of open systems, an incomplete knowledge; we are increasingly aware of knowledge as tacit, practical and experiential as well as scientific.

These understandings of knowledge are closely associated with the understanding of power as transformative capac- ity and with the diffusion of efforts at social change. The implications for political organisation point towards an em- phasis on horizontal sharing and exchanging of knowledge; co-operative attempts to build a common memory; the self-consciousness of action and struggle as also an ex- periment and therefore the importance of ensuring spaces for reflection, debate and synthesis." (http://www.networked-politics.info/research-lines/political-parties-and-representation-systems)

Power in markets, bureaucracies, networks

Manual De Landa:

"Herbert Simon's distinction between command hierarchies and markets may turn out to be a special case of a more general dichotomy. In the view of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, this more abstract classes, which they call strata and self-consistent aggregates (or trees and rhizomes), are defined not so much by the locus of control, as by the nature of elements that are connected together. Strata are composed of homogenous elements, whereas self-consistent aggregates articulate heterogeneous elements as such. {6} For example, a military hierarchy sorts people into internally homogenous ranks before joining them together through a chain of command. Markets, on the other hand, allow for a set of heterogeneous needs and offers to become articulated through the price mechanism, without reducing this diversity. In biology, species are an example of strata, particularly if selection pressures have operated unobstructedly for long periods of time allowing the homogenization of the species gene pool. On the other hand, ecosystems are examples of self-consistent aggregates, since they link together into complex food webs a wide variety of animals and plants, without reducing their heterogeneity. I have developed this theory in more detail elsewhere, but for our purposes here let's simply keep the idea that besides centralization and decentralization of control, what defines these two types of structure is the homogeneity or heterogeneity of its composing elements.

Before returning to our discussion of agent-based interfaces, there is one more point that needs to be stressed. As both Simon and Deleuze and Guattari emphasize, the dichotomy between bureaucracies and markets, or to use the terms that I prefer, between hierarchies and meshworks, should be understood in purely relative terms. In the first place, in reality it is hard to find pure cases of these two structures: even the most goal-oriented organization will still show some drift in its growth and development, and most markets even in small towns contain some hierarchical elements, even if it is just the local wholesaler which manipulates prices by dumping (or withdrawing) large amounts of a product on (or from) the market. Moreover, hierarchies give rise to meshworks and meshworks to hierarchies. Thus, when several bureaucracies coexist (governmental, academic, ecclesiastic), and in the absence of a super-hierarchy to coordinate their interactions, the whole set of institutions will tend to form a meshwork of hierarchies, articulated mostly through local and temporary links. Similarly, as local markets grow in size, as in those gigantic fairs which have taken place periodically since the Middle Ages, they give rise to commercial hierarchies, with a money market on top, a luxury goods market underneath and, after several layers, a grain market at the bottom. A real society, then, is made of complex and changing mixtures of these two types of structure, and only in a few cases it will be easy to decide to what type a given institution belongs." (http://t0.or.at/delanda/meshwork.htm)

Discussions 1

The Three Domains of Power

Eric Olin Wright on Three domains of power and interaction: the state, economy, and civil society:

"I will define these three domains of social interaction in relatively conventional ways, bracketing a number of difficult problems of conceptualization:

The State is the cluster of institutions, more or less coherently organized, which imposes binding rules and regulations over a territory. Max Weber defined the state as an organization which effectively monopolizes the legitimate use of force over a territory. I prefer Michael Mann's alternative emphasis on the state as the organization with an administrative capacity to impose binding rules and regulations over territories. The legitimate use of force is one of the key ways this is accomplished, but it is not necessarily the most important way. State power is then defined as the effective capacity to impose rules and regulate social relations over territory, a capacity which depends on such things as information and communications infrastructure, the ideological commitments of citizens to obey rules and commands, the level of discipline of administrative officials, the practical effectiveness of the regulations to solve problems, as well as the monopoly over the legitimate use of coercion.

The Economy is the sphere of social activity in which people interact to produce and distribute goods and services. In capitalism this activity involves privately owned firms in which production and distribution is mediated by market exchange. Economic power is based on the kinds of economically-relevant resources different categories of social actors control and deploy within these interactions of production and distribution.

Civil Society is the sphere of social interaction in which people voluntarily form associations of different sorts for various purposes. Some of these associations have the character of formal organizations with well-defined membership and objectives. Clubs, political parties, labor unions, churches, and neighborhood associations would be examples. Others are looser associations, in the limiting case more like social networks than bounded organizations. The idea of a "community", when it means something more than simply the aggregation of individuals living in a place, can also be viewed as a kind informal association within civil society. Power in civil society depends on capacities for collective action through such voluntary association, and can accordingly be referred to as "associational power" or "social power."

The state, the economy and civil society are all domains for extended social interaction, cooperation, and conflict among people, and each of them involves distinct sources of power. Actors within the economy have power by virtue of their ownership and control of economically relevant resources. Actors in the state have power by virtue of their control of rule making and rule enforcing capacity over territory, including coercive capacity. And actors in civil society have power by virtue of their ability to mobilize people for voluntary collective actions of various sorts." (http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/22074)

Freedom or Power?

From Bradley M. Kuhn and Richard M. Stallman at http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/freedom-or-power.html

Freedom is being able to make decisions that affect mainly you. Power is being able to make decisions that affect others more than you. If we confuse power with freedom, we will fail to uphold real freedom.

Proprietary software is an exercise of power. Copyright law today grants software developers that power, so they and only they choose the rules to impose on everyone else—a relatively few people make the basic software decisions for everyone, typically by denying their freedom. When users lack the freedoms that define Free Software, they can't tell what the software is doing, can't check for back doors, can't monitor possible viruses and worms, can't find out what personal information is being reported (or stop the reports, even if they do find out). If it breaks, they can't fix it; they have to wait for the developer to exercise its power to do so. If it simply isn't quite what they need, they are stuck with it. They can't help each other improve it.

Power as Integration

George Siemens:

"Information is not power. And, neither is money. Or any of the other terms that get equated with power. Quite simply, integration is power. How an individual or organization forms a coherent view (integrates elements) internally and how it is related to the entities (venture capital firms, government officials, vendors, clients) that either enable or constrain their actions, that ultimately determines success.

What, for example, gives Goldman Sachs their “power”? Is it their wealth? No – other firms and countries have significant wealth but lack the capacity for influence of GS. Is it the location of their headquarters – i.e. New York? No – many top banks are headquartered in London, Hong Kong, or other major cities. No, the real power of GS is how they have managed to integrate their company with businesses and government. The bailout of AIG benefitted GS more than almost any other firm. The fact that former GS leaders hold influential government positions reinforces the company’s integration with government. Power and influence, then, are not single points but rather the capacity of an organization (or individual) to construct an integrated network that not only frames a certain reality or addresses certain problems or situations in society, but also creates very situations that only they can solve.

Goldman Sachs is a great example. When GS created financial instruments of growing complexity, the government needed to hire their employees in order to make sense of the new financial climate. This in turn created a structure that reinforced the power structure of GS, ensuring “too big to fail” status.

I’m going to make an imperfect leap from power as an integrated network in corporate and government settings to power as integrated knowledge in conversations, education, and society in general." (http://www.connectivism.ca/?p=257)

Discussions 2

On not confusing Power-to and Power-over

Is power essentially something negative? Does it always have to corrupt? And does “taking power” necessarily have to mean taking state power?

Excerpted from New Compass magazine:

According to Holloway, doing – or quite “simply can-ness, capacity-to-do, the ability to do things” – constitutes the basic form of power. Holloway calls this form of power a “power-to” or “power-to-do.” For Holloway, power-to is something inherently good. Not only does it realize our distinctively human abilities to project-beyond reality as we see it here and now, it is also “inherently plural, collective, choral, communal.”

Now, the turning of power into something bad happens when somebody in some way starts to appropriate and control the doing of others. In this process, power-to is turned into what Holloway calls power- over, and these two become the opposites of a dichotomy. Whereas power-to is defined by a sort of liberating and harmonious social flow that unites the doing of each and everyone of us, power- over arises from the breaking up of the collective by a process of separation.

The exercise of power by the ones who have appropriated the doing of others – that is to say, the capitalists – is not based on brute force, but rather on the fact that the individual workers have no other option than to work for someone in order to earn a living. “The doers have now won freedom from personal dependence on the rulers,” writes Holloway, “but they are stilled held in a process of subordination by the fracturing of the collective flow of doing.”

Capital is not based on the ownership of people but on the ownership of the done and, on that basis, of the repeated buying of people’s power-to-do. Since people are not owned, they can quite easily refuse to work for others without suffering any immediate punishment. The punishment comes rather in being cut off from the means of doing (and of survival). Moreover, for Holloway, organized violence, police, armies and prison guards are outsourced to another agent, the State, whose role is basically to ensure that the capitalist’s property rights are kept intact.

A Flawed Dichotomy

Useful as the concepts of power-over and power-to might be when it comes to differentiate between exploitation and non-exploitation, it is not helpful in understanding how power actually works in society – and even less how it should be dealt with in a free society.

For what, after all, is power-to? For Holloway it is just an abstraction of the essence of doing something, and hardly a reality at all. Importantly, Holloway’s concept does not describe or imply a way of organizing society. He stops and does not ask the crucial question: Have societies solely based on power-to ever existed? I believe what he would find would be quite disconcerting. Collective forms of doing, or “social flows of doing,” have always been organized in certain ways. Every social organization has its proper modes of production and its own institutions.

By saying that communities based on power-to never have existed in the past, I am not saying that they cannot exist in the future. I merely point out what Holloway failed to mention: That the social flow of doing always has been united in a particular institutional way, and that these institutions have been part of a structure that distributes power to certain individuals in a certain setting (being an elderly in the tribal community means nothing special if it were not for the council of elders). With this in mind, however, one may very well ask oneself whether a society solely based on power-to is at all possible.

A pure and power-free social flow of doing is an illusion. In today’s society the decision makers are capital owners that have power over their workers. But let us face it, even in a considerably better world somebody would have to make decision regarding production and distribution, and they would rely on somebody listening to and executing these decisions.

If Holloway did not involve himself only with an abstract discussion of power, he would have been forced to consider the various answers in the socialist tradition to where such power should be located. Proponents of workers councils think economic power should be placed in the hands of workers representatives, advocates of workers collectives believe that the individual work place should be the locus of decision-making, and Social Democrats put their faith in a strong national assembly to regulate the market economy.

Looking closer at real life experiences further reveals the blemish of the distinction between power-to and power-over. Take a look at the unemployed worker’s movement in Argentina, where several communities of the so-called piqueteros – who blocked the main roads to Buenos Aires during the rebellion in 2001 and 2002 – have been organized in a libertarian way. With a strong emphasis on horizontalism and direct democracy, all decisions are made in assemblies where every member of the community is eligible to participate. Let us for the sake of the argument say that one of these communities discusses whether to receive unemployment benefits from the state or not. Some of the members believe that the community needs these benefits in order to survive, whereas others think that it will lead to an unhealthy dependency on the state and in turn undermine their struggle. Through a vote – or by arriving at a compromise (consensus) – the community ends up deciding that they should not accept the unemployment benefits.

This decision, however, is only relevant as long as the individual members of the community are willing to follow it. If a sizable portion of the community accepts state benefits anyway, it will undermine the power of the assembly. The intention of deliberating benefits and other issues in the assembly is to give everyone an equal share of the community’s power, but they can only do so in a democratic fashion as long as the assembly has power-over the acts of its individual members. In our case this means that the members of the unemployed workers community are willing to accept the assembly decision, even though they disagree with it.

Power-to and power-over are inextricably intertwined. Human beings live in collectives, and they only have power-to-do things as long as they have organized their collectives so that someone (preferably everyone, organized through participatory institutions) has power-over what is going on in that collective. To assume the dissolution of power-over is simply to assume the dissolution of society.

Disruption or Empowerment?

Since the social transformation Holloway is talking about has to shake off its ambitions to take power, he has to look elsewhere, and what Holloway turns to instead is an “anti-politics” of “anti- power.” This “anti-power” lies in “the dignity of everyday existence,” in “the relations we form all the time, relations of love, friendship, comradeship, community, cooperation.”

From one perspective this certainly sounds sensible. The time and energy we spend on the people we love is often spent at the expense of the time and energy we use to be industrious labourers and mindless consumers. The comradeship, community and cooperative projects we value are radically at odds with the egoism and competitiveness of the market-place.

Still, even the most cynical of speculators at the London Stock Exchange has a family she loves and wonderful friends in financial circles. Multinational corporations like Microsoft rely heavily on internal cooperation in order to succeed economically, and community organizations thrive in many of the most advanced capitalist countries. In fact, a realtively recent OECD report showed that the Nordic countries – with low working hours (consequently more time for family and friends) and strong traditions for community participation – are among the most competitive of all capitalist countries. As such Holloway’s “anti- power” is more disruptive than subversive.

Holloway is aware of the co-opting abilities of capitalism and insists that for “the scream to grow in strength, there must be a recuperation of doing, a development of power-to. That implies a re-taking of the means of doing.” But how is it possible to re-take the means of doing without taking power? Somebody has control over the material and financial resources today, and unless we get hold of these resources or otherwise undermine the grip that these resources have on society, it will be incredibly difficult to change the world.

These are significant shortcomings of Holloway’s theory which stops him at seeing how seemingly powerlessness can sabotage, annoy and frustrate the powerful and limit their rule, but not on how they can change the world. He does not discuss, nor propose, a single way of actually changing society. By dismissing the whole idea of taking power, (remember the words “we who do not have power and do not want to have power”) Holloway has dismissed alternatives where people together hold power. What Holloway has formulated is a theory of the disruption of the powerful – not of empowerment of the disempowered. He shares this in common with theoreticians of the autonomist movement in general.

We have to understand how power is always a mix in between “power-to” and “power-over.” A communal, cooperative and free society will have to be based on institutions that distribute decision-making powers in a democratic way. Democracy, in turn, is based on the principle that the majority holds “power-over” the minority in decision-making processes. If not, democracy would ultimately break down. Just as the autonomist movement in Argentina of 2001 and 2002, we believe that these institutions have to be directly democratic assemblies. But such assemblies are essentially irrelevant if they do not have political authority, that is, if they do not have “power-over” other institutions such as schools, hospitals, industries and more.

In addition, such democratic institutions have to be in control of the use of violence in society. If there is anything the Argentinean experience shows us, it is how dangerous private organizations based on violence (e.g. mafias) are for libratory movements, as they often contest for power in the very same neighborhoods and regions as such movements do. This does not mean that a democratic polity directly could control the use of violence, such an idea is plainly absurd, but it rather has to have authority of the organizations that is established to ensure the safety of everyone. History is filled with examples of how this could be done democratically – through militias, people’s jury’s, elections of policing forces and more – but such examples are often left out of the purview of libertarians who naively reject the necessity of sometimes using physical force.

Such direct democratic power is fundamentally different from state power, because the latter is based on the decision-making powers of a minority. The proverb that power corrupts basically implies that power in the hands of a minority corrupts, as politicians tend to accumulate more powers in their own hands, ensure privileges for themselves once elected in government and to run away from their former ideals as the harsh realities of statecraft dawns upon them. Taking power for communalists, then, does not mean taking state power, but rather hollowing out the power of capital and existing state institutions through a dual power strategy.

It is in such a strategy that Holloway and the tactics of autonomists comes in very handy. Holloway’s strength is in showing how capitalists depends on the rest of us, and that we as ordinary workers potentially holds the power that others have attributed for themselves. We are the ones that grow the food, work the production lines and ensure in other ways that the whole economic system works smoothly – this gives us enormous latent powers. The weakness of Holloway and autonomism in general, however, is the inability to formulate a politics on how we can not only disrupt the powerful, but also create liberatory and democratic forms of power.” (http://new-compass.net/articles/power-always-bad)

From Power-Over to Power-From-Within

Tom Atlee on Power, Social Power, and Personal Power

Power is the ability to do, to act, to have an effect, to influence life. This is power-to, the most fundamental form of power: simply the power to accomplish things. Democracy is about the power that we, the people, have—the power to do the things that we, as individuals and collectively, want to do and that need doing.


Power-to involves freedom—freedom-from (freedom from barriers, oppression, and harm) and freedom-to (freedom to take effective action). Freedom-from is what most people think of when they think of freedom. But there’s this other freedom, as well: freedom-to. We don’t really have freedom to do, be, or have something unless we have both opportunity and possibility to achieve it. Most of us are not, realistically speaking, free to suspendourselves in midair (except in outer space). Someone who has no legs is not, realistically speaking, free to walk up ten flights of stairs.

So democracy is partly about keeping our commons— the shared life-spaces where we all live together—both unhampered by unreasonable limits (freedom-from) and rich with equal opportunities (freedom-to). We want to be able to speak out, get together, enter buildings in wheelchairs, be fairly considered for jobs, and all the rest. Democracy doesn’t always or necessarily mean we will be helped—although we might be, if that is the will of our fellows—but it does mean that we should have rights and opportunities comparable to everyone else’s. How we use those rights and opportunities is up to us—as long as we don’t undermine other people’s rights and freedoms in the process.

The fact that our freedom exists in the context of other people’s freedom means that freedom can never be absolute. But it can be optimized: that is, it can be made as broad and full as possible for everyone involved, given the limitations of the circumstances. Working that out is—or should be—one of the great ongoing projects of our democratic life. It helps a lot if we respect and listen to each other. It makes a difference if we then use what we learn to search together for good answers that benefit us all.

Freedom and power are linked at the hip. You will never find one without the other.

Which brings us back to power. Power-to breaks down into a number of other types of power. The form of power most people think of is power-over. Power-over is the ability to control, determine, dominate, or destroy—or unduly influence—someone or something. We apply power-over in many parts of our individual and collective lives, from controlling cars and hammers to building and bombing skyscrapers to managing amber waves of grain and kids at the dinner table.


When power-over translates into social power, it means the ability to control society, to dominate opponents, to garner greater privileges, to win in political and economic battlegrounds. People and groups with superior weapons, knowledge of scientific public relations, tons of money, authority to imprison people, and/or ownership of mass media have an abundance of power-over. Even individual qualities like intelligence, creativity, sexuality, and personality can provide power-over in social situations. Ideally, in a democracy, social power (of the power-over variety) is distributed broadly, fairly, and relatively evenly, so that it doesn’t distort our ability to make good public decisions and treat each other decently. This helps us ensure an appropriate level of freedom for all concerned.

Decentralization, human rights, and social justice and equity are all democratic principles that support the distribution of social power.

However, there is often need for social power to be centralized or concentrated. Some functions are naturally best handled at a particular level of society—personal, local, state, national, international. Ideally a function would be assigned to the lowest level at which it can be effectively handled. For example, most people believe that a country’s defense is best addressed at the national level, rather than at the county or individual citizen levels. Obviously, care for the oceans needs to be done at transnational, even global levels. On the other hand, the structure of your ongoing education is best left to you, personally, although local school boards and state and national legislatures may deem it appropriate to have certain broadly applied standards for a diploma or certificate that is recognized by the whole society.

When social power is centralized or concentrated it poses a potential threat to democracy. As Lord Acton famously said: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Two strategies help make concentrated power more benign. One is to balance it with other centers of concentrated social power. For example, the three branches of the U.S. government—legislative, administrative, and judicial—were designed to “check and balance” each other. Each branch has certain specified powers, but can be challenged, bypassed, or overruled by the other branches in specific ways and circumstances. Unions and corporate leaders have powers that balance each other, at least somewhat. Lately we’ve seen small groups and movements—from terrorists to nonviolent activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., from Occupy Wall Street to hackers and bloggers—balance the concentrated power of giant national and transnational institutions, at least somewhat. In a healthy democracy, whenever power gets too concentrated, other powers show up to challenge and attempt to balance it.

The second strategy to make concentrated power more benign is to make it answerable to those over whom it is exercised. This is why government transparency, investigative journalism, whistleblowers, and civilian oversight of police, military, and intelligence services are so important. Elections also constitute a powerful form of answerability, if they are fair and done in a context where we, the people, actually know what public officials have been doing and who is funding their electoral campaigns. The answerability principle is also why corporations—some of which are arguably the best examples of concentrated power on earth today—are supposed to be chartered by the community or state, and their performance reviewed before the charter is periodically renewed or withdrawn. If a group, organization, or person with undue concentrated power resists all efforts to balance their power or make it answerable, that power needs be broken up and/or its functions distributed to others. This is usually quite difficult, but we’ve seen examples ranging from antitrust laws to the American Revolution.

One way or another, if we wish to preserve our democracy we must mitigate the toxic tendencies of concentrated power.

However—and this is a key point—all these safeguards are only necessary because we’re talking about power-over. There’s another form of power—power-with, the power of collaboration and synergy—which is equally valuable whether it is distributed or concentrated. Working together—especially when we use our differences well—makes each of us more powerful. All of us together know more and can do more than any of us individually. Working together we can usually serve our self-interest better than if we fight for what we want against the self-interest of others.

At any given time in the development of a group or culture, there will be things that people can agree on and things they can’t agree on. Power-with is clearly the best choice for achieving what we agree on. Power-over is clearly workable—in a sort of rough-and-tumble way—for those things we can’t agree on: either someone with dominant power tells everyone else what to do, or there’s a contest to see who can win enough power to make the others comply or back down—the idea behind majority voting.

What’s interesting about what’s going on in our society right now is that power-with strategies—especially quality conversation—are increasingly being used to expand the territory of what we can agree on. This is true even though we’re seeing more polarized battles and power plays in politics, economics, and many other spheres.


Feeding into this new capacity is our growing understanding of a third form of power: power-from-within. It starts with understanding the power available from people’s passions, interests, and natural inclinations. Kids who are interested in a subject learn it with no one forcing them to. So-called Open Space conferences are set up to have no prior agendas, but rather to help people who share particular passions find each other, talk, and work together. Permaculture practitioners arrange plants, animals, and physical aspects of a garden site together so that every organism pursuing its own self-interest causes the whole designed ecosystem to readily yield benefits for every organism involved, including its human gardeners.

Power-from-within includes not only our passions but our special capacities. Every one of us has skills and talents, knowledge and experience, many forms of intelligence and spirit, perhaps even conscious connection to powers greater than ourselves. All these personal qualities contribute to our ability to shape what happens the world, as long as we appreciate, nurture, and use them. And all of them can be enhanced in groups and cultures that respect and encourage them in their members. Furthermore, groups themselves have collective capacities—including collective experience, intelligence, and resources greater than the sum of the individual members—they can tap as power-from-within.

So there is power in tapping the natural life energies, experience, and capacities that already exist in individuals and groups, in organizations and communities, in societies and the world. Many group process experts speak of “the magic in the middle”—which means that there is power and wisdom that arises from within and among the group’s members. This power and wisdom does not come from the individuals themselves so much as from their interactions, from a kind of group energy or intelligence that shows up because these people are together. Their very presence together calls forth certain ideas or behaviors that would not have emerged otherwise—if their culture and interactions support that happening. Many transformational consultants claim that every living system—every person, community, and organization—has within it the answers it needs.

But this often depends on certain processes and ways of being together that build synergy between the life of the group and the individual lives of its members. The group enhances the individuals’ thinking, feeling, and competence, and the individuals enhance the functionality and creativity of the group. Everyone involved—especially the facilitator or coach—works to enhance both of these dynamics.

This kind of group synergy is often dramatically demonstrated in sports teams and jazz ensembles who are “in the groove.” Power-with and power-from-within merge into an almost aesthetic surge of power-to. This “group flow” is quite exciting to watch and even more thrilling to be part of. People “lose themselves” in the group—not by becoming smaller or less themselves, but by expanding to embrace more of the group’s interactive power within their own capacities and responses. The distinction between self and group becomes meaningless because they are both subsumed in this higher form of power and intelligence that is thoroughly dependent on all of them and their in-tune interactions. This synergy between power-with and power-from within is not always as dramatic as what I’ve articulated here. But usually those involved feel it as an expansion of themselves, their awareness, and their role in the world. They have been empowered.

The fact that this can happen in groups working on public issues has profound significance for what we normally think of as “politics.”

One of the things it means is that a group of separate citizens who come together in this way can find themselves expanding into a shared identity often experienced as We the People—a palpable sense of collective agency that is mythically in charge in a democracy. These folks know they have what’s needed to make politics and government work. They know they were just ordinary citizens hours or days before, but now they’ve seen a new level of citizenship and a new level of power, freedom, and responsibility. They can feel how this We the People identity is a force to be reckoned with." (http://www.realitysandwich.com/empowering_public_wisdom_practical_vision_citizenled_politics_chapter_1)

Kinds of Power

  1. Protocollary Power
  2. Anti-Power
  3. Non-representational Paradigm of Power
  4. Power Law
  5. Power Law of Participation
  6. Society of Control
  7. Wisdom Game

More Information

  1. Power Laws Weblogs and Inequality - Clay Shirky
  2. Web 2.0 as Power to the People
  3. Power Laws of Innovation

From the P2P Manuscript

  1. De-Monopolization of Power
  2. Evolutionary Conceptions of Power and Hierarchy
  3. Equipotentiality vs. the Power Law

Books to Read

  1. A Theory of Power Jeff Vail. 2004
  2. Protocol. Alexander Galloway.
  3. Stephen Lukes. Power: A Radical View. Macmillan, 1974