"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

Jul 20, 2010

Wherein I type it all over again...

Apparently, I have failed to state a simple premise simply enough.


The purpose of power preserves its shape. Power doesn't exist in an imaginary space, where the possession of it remains separate from the purpose.  A person obtains power by subordinating the needs of others to his or her own. One broad half of that equation involves the act(s) of dominance. The other, obedience.

Those who don't submit may suffer the consequences (because others continue to take and obey orders, including the enactment of punishment), but if they don't serve, they don't obey, and the power relation breaks, at least at those circuits. In its simplest manifestation, power requires one who dominates, and one who submits.

No position, rule, rank or office of power exists where this does not obtain. To have power one must have power over someone else. You cannot separate power from obedience.

This bears repeating: power always means power over.

If a person holds a position of power, that person must have those who submit and obey. Without the submission and obedience of others (willful or against the will), no power.

Any doctrine, creed, belief, -ism, faith, ideology, political movement, faction, party or group which preserves the purpose of power will preserve the logic and shape of it. Any group which uses the hierarchy will follow the purpose, because the preservation of the hierarchy depends upon its purpose.

When some give orders and others obey, inequity follows. From this inequity, an uneven distribution of ranks within the hierarchy develops. Those who rule use their power. They accumulate resources, which strengthen their position. Competition for an office, role or position within the hierarchy requires the accumulation of resources, and subservient instruments, which provide the competitor with a better position from which to reach his or her goal. And the means by which he retains his position, once he obtains it. Those who fail to seek or accept it do not obtain it. Those who fail keep and often expand their position, lose it. Position confers benefit, and the number who would have it far exceeds the number available.

These material conditions attract the type of persons who can and will give orders to others. They shape the methods and worldviews of those in competition for power, as well as those who already have it and use it.

Seeking power shapes one to accept the logic and form of power.

Power replicates itself within the competition* for the benefits having it provides.

Because power has a function, a stable form and a logic which remains consistent, and contrary to the wishful thinking of those who do not observe the record of the past, it does not disperse.

To have power, one must reinforce it. To use power, one must preserve it. To preserve the use of power, one must force or convince others to obey.**

And so long as people obey, power does not disperse; as long as power exists, people will obey - except in the phantasmagorias and fairy tales of those who ought to know better, but cannot or will not begin to try.

* - this includes education and culture

** - you cannot campaign for a position of elected office in order to degrade or disperse power, because to achieve that end, you must first cultivate a power base which allows you to compete for the office


JRB said...

I don't understand power as always meaning power-over. I think there is such a thing as power-between.

Maybe you use a different concept for what I would call power-between. If so, I don't know what that concept is. So you see, I don't understand what you are proposing as an alternative to power-over, if not power-between.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

I believe you have convinced this horse to let humans ride it, Jack.

Should be interesting to see how people address this entry's observations. At this point I can only be redundant.

Nice aim, even better shots.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

JRB --

"Power-beteween," if it means what it appears to mean, is problematic in that it continues to use power structurally and systemically. In such a situation, someone's gonna work to turn "power-between" into "power-over." It's inevitable given the current psychology of the human species. Too many people assume that their personal security is related to the "power-over" concept.

Andromeda said...

JC, just when I think you can't refine your ideas any further, just when I think you've stated your thesis on power perfectly, you come up with something like this.

"This bears repeating: power always means power over." This is the core of your thesis, and a point with which I wholeheartedly agree.

I feel privileged to have found your blog. Of all the ones I read, I must admit I find yours the most interesting.

You are a philosopher and are always pioneering new ideas and pushing the envelope, as it were.

Does it make me an anarchist to agree with these statements you make about power?

As you said, I do not think of myself as such. Let's start with killing the fixed ideas!

I'd say this one is not fixed, and is how I interpret power (metaphorically speaking): a virus that self-replicates in the minds of all it touches. Highly contagious; takes two forms: the "powerful" and the "subservient"---now if only there were a vaccine...

Ah, yes, there is a vaccine! It's called experience, knowledge and wisdom.

With humble thanks,

JRB said...

Charles F.:

I accept your assumptions, but I don't think there's any alternative to the fact that people will try to monopolize power. The whole point is to prevent them. By definition, that means struggling to keep power diffused, because it doesn't just disappear: it moves from one place to another.

I think this can be simply illustrated through the example of a family. Either a family makes choices as a group, or someone in the family dictates the terms for everyone else. The power to decide where we are going to dinner is either exercised between family members, or it is wielded by the father, or the parents, or some other subset of the family -- in which case power is in a state of greater concentration.

One of the points I think we can all agree on regarding, say, capital and the state, is that these entities preclude an equitable distribution of power, as can be potentially found in other institutions, like the family.

Anyway, this is all pretty straightforward, coming right out of traditional democratic principles -- e.g. "one person, one vote." Again: it doesn't work well within a state structure, for reason owing to that structure, but that doesn't mean can't be realized through other institutions, or even that there isn't good reason to try to approximate it within the state, when we lack of any other viable alternative.

Jack Crow said...


Thank you.

FWIW, I think the replication idea has its uses, but I have a profound wariness of sickness metaphors. It usually occurs that someone inevitably proposes a "cure."


You certainly can and did add more. Nothing redundant about this,

"In such a situation, someone's gonna work to turn 'power-between' into 'power-over.'"

That's the rub, isn't it? As long as the structure is in place, it gets used.


If the English language had the two variants on the word power that exist within German, this would probably flow more easily, as a discussion.

On the one hand, you have reich, which pretty much means what most people intend, in the word power. Control over others, and in the formal sense of a structural hierarchy. A reign.

On the other hand, you have macht, as strength, and carries a very apolitical and personal meaning, figuring a person who makes, shapes, creates, builds.

As an interesting side note, much that is truly excellent in Nietzsche gets lost in the translation, since he counter-poses macht and reich, conceptually. The will to power, in his body of thought, means "the will to strength," in the sense of creativity and self-sufficiency, but alas so many have lost that meaning (and his other rather subversive and apolitical plays on meaning) because English only has one word for both ideations of power.

I don't mean "macht" when I discuss power, because the English word "strength" conveys that value well enough. One can have a species of strength, without ever employing power. In fact, it may take a lot of strength to avoid taking power (an attitude found in Gandhi and King, as well as the Catholic Worker movement).

As for "power-between," that seems like a restatement of the term "power sharing."

A concept in which I have little faith, because eventually someone gets an upper hand, or new parties arise, and the balance of authority shifts.

I think Charles is very right - the structure of power only allows for this "power-between" when the outcome of a contest is undetermined, or enough persons and resources remain uncommitted, forestalling the final ordering of ranks.



Jack Crow said...

I think, JRB, that you use the term "power" to convey a quantum of energy.

Does that ring true?

JRB said...


So you're using power in a pejorative sense, and some other concept to express what I mean by "power-between," as explained in my example of a family, democracy, etc.

What do you call this other concept, which opposes "power"?

And yes, I do think of power as being a kind of energy.

Jack Crow said...


I don't know what can or would make you an anarchist, in all honesty.

I myself would probably never say or write, "I'm an anarchist," because I don't like the verb form involved, which is a mental tic of no small discomfort.

The great thing about the concept, though, follows from the acting of it - you get to decide what your own liberation looks like. I know of people who often append a suffix to the term (like -syndicalist, -capitalist, -communist) who might disagree with my assessment, but I take no small comfort in knowing that, at the cellular level, I don't have a say in how you interface with reality. If your best life involves refusing to obey any earthly power but believing in all sincerity that the Cosmos or God loves you and that you have a higher vocation, it has nothing to do with me. I don't share that view, but I'm not looking out from your eyes, either.

If you and a bunch of like minded people want to settle a mountaintop and live according to whatever conditions suit you best, my sort of "anarchism" allows for that, so long as no one has to do what you want them to, and a person's existence does not gets its shape from the definitions imposed by the majority group.

I don't know if that helps or just confuses the issue, but between feeding my son, stuffing my own face while typing, and getting over a particularly brutal run, I don't have my thoughts exactly in order.



Charles F. Oxtrot said...


I start to get uncomfortable when someone else's family starts telling me what I can and cannot do.

The family unit example is fine as far as it goes, but it has no direct analogy to larger social structures.

I am not a tribalist myself, I don't particularly care for my fellow American, the few I respect are countable with my 20 fingers and toes. My inclination is away from banding together in larger groups for that nebulous thing known as "security" in all its facets.

However, most Americans are the opposite, which is why most Americans live in large metropolitan areas. Most salivate after modern conveniences and prefer a very controlled, well-paved, well-lit environment in which they may go about their lives.

Such people prefer the large group dynamic and they will eagerly wish for your family metaphor to extend to their large metropolitan area.

And most of them, no matter how they may run their personal households, are --in my experience-- fond of the paternalist view of social order and the maternalist view of what social services the central paternalist authority should provide and govern.

In that setting, power-between will become power-over faster than you or I can blink.



Nice of you to say I added something with that observation on power-between ---> power-over, but to me it's an obvious aspect of your primary entry here. Hence, redundant!

Charles F. Oxtrot said...


The family unit example is fine as far as it goes, but in my ideal human societyit has no direct analogy to larger social structures.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

New idea... parallel path? Detour?

Earlier today I ran across someone's comment somewhere that ascribed all of today's Congressional ills to the idea that "lobbyists write the laws."

To which I always respond, when in personal conversation: NO. The Congress GIVES LOBBYISTS THAT POWER, and the Congress can choose to NOT GIVE THAT POWER. They are not required to give that power to lobbyists.

They do so willingly. They excuse themselves by saying the lobbyists were influential, clever, generous, smarmy, unctuous, sycophantic, persuasive, formidable, seductive, whatever. It's classic triangulation of blame, typical evasion of responsibility.

It's a lot like when I was a kid and my brother and I would fight, and then when our mother would yell at us to stop, each of us would say "BUT HE STARTED IT!"

Evasion of responsibility.


I was looking at some of the blogs you have linked on your right margin, Jack. At The Hunting of the Snark, a recent entry covers doctrinal authority, and includes the following statement:

Power is given, not taken. We tell ourselves that the powerful control us but they do so only with our permission. If we revolted as other nations did when their living conditions became intolerable, we could take back control and the elite would be in their graves.

Yes, yes, yes... yes indeed.

The practical problem is that a great many people WANT TO give over their personal power, their authority, their responsibility for both self-protection and self-determination.

That's what I was trying to say to JRB above, about JRB's family metaphor as extrapolated out to larger social groups.

I am strongly convinced of the accuracy of Erich Fromm's arguments in Fear of Freedom (or, in America, Escape from Freedom) -- most humans are afraid of personal responsibility and do not believe they can take care of themselves. So they long to give authority to another, a supreme power. They do so spiritually with religion, they do so socially with government.

In desperate times, the religious accession becomes rabid fundamentalist, and highly intolerant.

In desperate times, the social accession creates a more totalitarian, police-state system, like the present fascism running America.

Oh yes, it's fascism. It's just that nobody thinks it can happen here. So instead it's called Good Government by its fans, and "Marxism" by the ill-informed GOP partisan provocateurs.

Jack Crow said...


My oldest is getting to the age where he no longer takes my pronouncements at face value. Honestly, I wish it'd started earlier - but we get what we get.

The other day I sent him off to bed for annoying me, which was really all my problem, because I wanted to read and he wanted to catch up after visiting with my ex- for her twice annual foray into "parenting."

He turned towards me after I strongly suggested he cross the distance between my couch and his bedroom and said, without fanfare, "No, Dad."

At that point, I could get my way only by forcing him to abandon his.

Or by leaving the room, myself.

His refusal to obey removed the relation of power to submission.

In other words, I had a choice between his autonomy and mine, or my autonomy at the expense of his. Or, if I wanted to surrender a portion of my own autonomy, I could have appealed to my wife to solve the problem.

I think you're absolutely right that a goodly number of people would (because of training, culture, and a childhood of educated defeats) either force the issue, or look for someone to get it done for them.

Most of us probably don't have a fighting chance, without some sort of external intervention of events, if I look at it objectively. Power replicates by training those who rule and those who obey.

The discipline of autonomy, if you will, I liken to learning how to sustain a long distance run.

Since most of us don't have the good fortune of growing up with the freedom to experience it, we have to learn it. We have to learn it under conditions of obedience, submission, inequity and self-control. Instead of it coming to us freely, circumstances require that we train. Like training to run, which requires breath control, proper diet, a mental and emotional refusal to submit to pain, a willful acceptance of the pain in order to run through it, and all else that useful discipline requires.

Until the discipline no longer takes willful effort, and becomes innate to the experiences of living.

Or something like that.

If all of your discipline goes into obedience, into the self-control of self-abnegation, then you develop and cultivate cunning, calculation, resentment and the grasping after power.

Because power provides the alternative to obedience. "Welcome to the layer cake," the movie line goes. Get on top, so you're not on bottom.

I just realized this reads a bit like rambling. Fuck me, right?

I'll stop there until my thoughts run smarter.



Jack Crow said...


I don't conceive of power except in the pejorative. If I want to express "energy," the word "energy" suffices.

In a social context, power doesn't merely happen, so that quanta of it reproduce among the population. And where problems of distribution ramify from problems of accumulation, such that fixing the distribution system will fix the inequity.

In any society with power, someone has to provide the obedience. Someone has to submit. For a person to have a position of power, others have to defer to it; they have to yield up their own autonomy to serve the office, chieftain, priest, lieutenant, president, chairman, supervisor, boss or whatever.



Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Rambling's cool by me and besides, this is your blog ain't it?


I know why I am an individualist, and it has to do with shit I went through as a kid, and I know that most people don't go through the same stuff. So then I get to asking myself, "why are more people not individually oriented, why are so many eager to give their personal authority and power to another?"

Before I read Fromm, I had an inkling as to why, from my own experiences, and from reading Alice Miller. But Fromm sealed it for me. People don't want that breadth and depth of freedom. Especially not in America. Hell, here people **brag about** working 80-hour weeks. Look at what people who travel by airplane have agreed to accept as "security" at airports. Look at what people will accept in the way of federal snooping on them, their cell phone use, their internet use.

In that situation you described with your son, one possible avenue strikes me: you tell him you're interested in having that discussion, but you're not interested in doing it with him in one room, you in another. So maybe you'll have the discussion later, when you're in the same room voluntarily.

You probably thought of that already though, I'm sure.

Jack Crow said...

Someday I'll write about managing a Hooters for a couple of years, Charles.

I hated that job. Loathed. Despised. Wanted to cut myself and bleed into the food and beer. Spike every drink with Visine. Collect discarded foreskins and cook them into the wing batter.

Speaking of power and an environment of intimidation and submission. If I'd actually followed the handbook, I'd have been obligated to kill myself.

I'll take homemaker Dad any day...

ASP said...

If power if diffused, if a whole community, instead of select some, makes decisions and controls resources, is that still the power of which you speak? If resources are not accumulated in the hands of one, or several persons but within the community as a whole, so that they are managed by decisions of all, does that dispel the power? In other words, if everyone participates in the shaping of their community equally, is there "power over" or is that then gone?

There will always be resources and people will always participate and organize in groups, communities, institutions, etc. What is the best way to ensure that resources are not accumulated in the hands of the few and that there is no power over in some group or institution, but to diffuse power so that all participate in the shaping and workings of their groups or institutions?

Andromeda said...


I also am not a fan of the verb form "to be"---I see it as a self-imposed limitation.

It is a great joy to decide what your own liberation looks like, and I think each individual is deserves that very opportunity. No, at the cellular level you don't have a say in how I interface with reality, but I have a "reality construction kit" (if you will) and I've certainly taken some pieces from your philosophical blog posts on this site and added them to my kit---hopefully that is okay with you. :-)

I think you possibly put too much weight on my personal sense of spirituality---that is to say, from reading your posts here, I'd say that we are more similar than we are different. In all honesty I'm closer to a Buddhist than anything else.

I do believe I have a higher vocation but it's one for which I know I volunteered---and that vocation is to help heal others who are suffering in whatever manner I am able.

It's of no consequence that you don't share my view, because I'm not looking out from your eyes and I'm not here to define your reality. :-)

I am not on this Earth to tell other people what to do or what to believe; I am here to share ideas. Others can take them or leave them as they see fit; I have no problem with people rejecting my ideas and finding and walking their own path.

The last thing in the world I would want to do is to shape another person's existence by the majority group; hopefully that is at least clear.

Sorry to hear you've had a brutal run lately; I know how it can be to not have your thoughts in order. I'm wishing you the best, JC. You did help clarify some things for me.