An Essay on the Nature of Power

Written by Alexander Pearson.


What is power? It is a currency understood by all, yet by none. We are all motivated by our desire for it, and seemingly to attain it, one must submit to it.

Power is the ability to induce others to do one’s will, whether it be through intimidation, persuasion, or invoking an innate sense of obligation stemming from one’s ethical framework. This is dependent on the effectee acknowledging the effector’s claim, and his/her willingness to abide to it. This process is mediated by a number of factors. Among them are communication, validity of argument, perceived authority, and net consequence theory.

Among its many functions, communication is primarily a means of manipulating other individuals. Whenever we interact with other people, we are, purposefully or subconsciously, influencing their cognitive state or behaviour. For instance, when we meet someone for the first time, we aim to make a “good first impression” in order to set the foundations for a profitable relationship. Indeed, much of human behaviour can be ascribed to acting in a way that makes other people like us. That is why embarrassment results from situations that conflict with our intended images, such as a usually calm person arguing with someone in public, an intelligent person making a mistake, and men showing a “softer side.” This results in intense pressure to maintain one’s “public image,” at the expense of one’s innate character. The benefit of this exercise is the ability to control how other people perceive us, and, consequently, how they are likely to interact with us.

The reason why we usually do not communicate with other species is because we have a limited capacity to influence their cognition and behaviour. However, when do communicate with animals, it is usually in an authoritative relationship. For example, training a dog to respond to verbal cues (such as “sit,” “stay,” and “shake hand”) or a cat to use the litter box. This is accomplished through operant conditioning, the process of training an animal to produce a specific behaviour in response to a stimulus that we can manipulate, using a system of reward and punishment.

Civilized society is administrated by a similar system of rewards and punishments. If you play your part and behave in accordance with an abstract system of ethics and laws (codified by other humans), you are rewarded with rights, freedoms, and fulfilment of basic needs. However, individuals that behave in discordance with these customs are persecuted and marginalized. For example, the homosexual community has long been marginalized as a result of social conventions. With the evolution of social consciousness, they have become better integrated into our society.

The validity of an argument is also an important determinant of the ability to influence others. People are less likely to accept an unreasonable argument. However, when weighed with other factors, people still may accept an unreasonable argument. For example, social instability (such as civil war) fuels radicalism, as demonstrated by the growth of ISIS in regions of the Middle East that have been embroiled in conflict for several decades.

A factor closely associated with validity is authority. Indeed, we often believe what scientists and “experts” tell us simply because we acknowledge their authority on certain matters. Usually, we only submit to others when we perceive ourselves to have relatively less authority. That is why the “doctor always knows what’s best” (a dogma that is changing due to the free availability of information over the Internet), and why soldiers are willing to risk their lives at the order of senior officers.

This system falls apart when the authority of individuals is no longer recognized. For example, when a scientist or a leader is deemed incompetent by their colleagues. Let us do a thought experiment. Imagine that you have in a room a general and a corporal. The general orders the corporal to perform an act, which the corporal refuses. How can the general now exert influence over the corporal? He could threaten the corporal with punishment. However, it is unlikely that he could execute the threat without the help of a subordinate (corporals are usually more fit than generals). What if that subordinate fails to support him, and so does the next? The result is a degradation of authority.

Then why doesn’t the social hierarchy collapse? That is, in part, due to net consequence theory, which predicts that people behave in a manner that results in the most benefit or least loss. Social hierarchies are favourable because of the stability they produce. That is why society is run in a way that minimizes social disorder, and the military’s chain of command is so powerful. Indeed, deviation from this system is punished so effectively that one rarely considers doing so. That is why, for example, soldiers are “broken in” as soon as they enter boot camp, and people only push for change when the costs become so great as to necessitate an intervention.

To conclude with one last point, power is like any other currency. Like money, it is an expectation that something will happen in the future. When you go to the bank, you expect that you can retrieve money from your savings accounts. However, money is an abstract concept that is nothing more than a promise. What if sanctions are placed upon you, and the bank refuses to release your funds or a business refuses to provide you with a product or service? Your money becomes meaningless. Similarly, power is an intangible currency that relies on other people acknowledging it. When influence and authority are no longer recognized, one loses power over other individuals. However, in practice, this rarely occurs because disregarding the power of others comes with a cost to one’s own. One can rarely question the authority of others without having their own authority come into question. As a result, challenges to power are infrequent.

This article, its ideas and its components can only be distributed with the express consent of the author (Alexander Pearson)


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