It’s time to talk about power. Apologies for the slightly dry tone but I’ve been having women problems lately. You can think of this as the fourth instalment of my “Political Personalities” series from last summer (just as Douglas would have wanted it).
How shall we define power? From Google, we have:
1. the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way.
2. the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events.
We can see that it’s about the direct control of persons, which might just be the self, or might include others. Power, unlike wealth, must therefore form a zero-sum game, because the more power I have over someone (which could be myself), the less you have over that person. Wealth, on the other hand, can be created so that we can both have more if we act in the right way.
Now wealth is often said to be a form of power in itself, but that isn’t quite right. The money in your bank account, as long as it stays there, is doing nothing except to accrue (a microscopic amount of) interest.
You can, however, convert money into power by for example buying a gun.
But I don’t think that conversion (or the reverse) is terribly efficient. It’s lossy. On the whole, therefore, societies in which there is a large deployment of power, tend to end up poorer overall. Of course, where power is exercised to a large degree, the distribution of it skews heavily to the ultimate victors, who can then convert it into a large amount of wealth for themselves. But the wealth-sum across everybody has fallen in this case.
Enough of wealth; let’s stick to power and see where it fits in to our concept of political personalities established in the earlier articles.
Recall that political orientation is driven by the traits of conscientiousness, open-mindedness and to a lesser degree agreeableness from the so-called “big five” personality model. Now, open-mindedness, which is seen more on the left wing, is really all about ideas. The more open, the bigger they are. An idea is a conscious motivation to change something about the world, and such change must ultimately be effected by people. Moreover, in order to being the change into effect people must stop what they’re doing, and that’s where the power comes into it.
Now as I said, money isn’t the same as power, but forcing someone to spend their money in accordance with your idea certainly is an application of power.
Do ideas always require power in order to be implemented? If you have the idea of going to the shop to get a Twix bar, you’re forcing yourself to undertake simple activities and you’re influencing the person in the shop to sell you the item. Now you may say he’s there already and intended to sell stuff. But in the instant, he has to do something different, even if that’s just stopping daydreaming for a moment. So, we would say that the amount of power deployed here is pretty small. You don’t really notice it, so it may be that the use of power is in some way smaller than the original idea.
Let’s scale things up a bit. You want to re-organise your garden and need someone to move heavy rocks. Can you persuade a friend to do this?
Maybe, but you’re deploying power you derived from your friendship, and there won’t be an unlimited supply of that. Now the act of persuading him feels like a substantial part of your project.
Say your idea is a bit bigger – you want to re-organise all the parks in your town. You’ll need a workforce because favours won’t cut it. Now wealth can help with that, but what about when you run out of money?
You’d have to force them to work, and that takes lots of power.
You also have to get permissions from the council etc, which means (in
practice) having some kind of hold over them. Blackmail perhaps? Either way, the use of power is now starting to feel like a bigger deal than the idea itself.
Okay, let’s get really big. You want to re-organise the whole country along the lines of your idea. For this you might need to create your own paramilitary police force in order to get the population to comply. The amount of power required for this is huge, and it can seem to dwarf the original idea. You’ve basically upended the entire power balance in the country in your favour, just to enact whatever the idea was (and by now, who cares?). And of course, since power is zero-sum, you’ve substantially dis-empowered most of the people.
In maths terms, I’d estimate that the size of the power required rises with the square of the size of the idea. A small idea measures 0.1, and the power required is 0.01. A large one 10 and the power 100. You see what I mean. So the ratio of the sizes varies with scale. It’s similar to elephants requiring thicker legs than flies, even relative to their size. A somewhat larger animal might be all leg for hardly any actual animal!
Now, I’m going to suggest that power can be regarded as an idea itself.
Power-idea could be the “perfect idea”, because it’s the one thing universally required by ideas, and because the largest ideas inevitably become little other than it. It’s as though the power-idea melds with and overwhelms the original idea leaving little sign remaining.
Consider communism and fascism. The underlying idea behind communism is like a spoonful of sugar – appealing to the naive but ultimately bad for you. The idea behind fascism is like a spoonful of salt – more obviously unpleasant. But these are both huge ideas, and the power required to bring them to fruition is much larger than the ideas themselves. This power-idea, which can be regarded as the idea of total power, is like a bug bucket of sick in our analogy. It matters not whether you mix in a spoonful of salt or sugar. It’s still basically going to be the same thing. This is how we explain how different initial motivations give rise to such similar outcomes: totalitarianism.
Did Hitler somehow hypnotise the whole country into turning “nuts”? Not in a direct, Derren Brown way (we would know all about it by now if he had). He certainly was persuasive, but it all relied on the promotion of the idea – the idea is central because it connects people’s desire for progress and change (and recovery and retaliation in Germany’s case) with a sense of the justification of the gathering and deployment of vast power. In fact, the idea may have been using the man…
Anyway, let’s lighten up if possible. I’m going to make what at first may seem a harmless enough observation, but I hope you will come to see it as one of the cleanest under-cuttings of contemporary post-modernism and cultural Marxism mooted thus far. It is this: in a healthy civilisation, power plays only a small role. I’m saying, power is not important. All ideas and power are really needed for is when the environment changes faster than evolution can keep up; it causes a rapid change in the way society works, with a low but non-zero chance of becoming better adapted. Across the aeons, it will have played its role, but it’s a very high-risk strategy, and foolish when the environment isn’t changing (like now).
Consider this. Children are born programmed to learn. They don’t need to be forced – we don’t need a new idea for this, because evolution already had the idea. We are born one of two genders. The idea of being male was not mine to have. Family bonds are all instinctive too, and the family unit is blissfully free of compulsion by power if it is healthy.
We do business by exchanging wealth absent the exercise of power by either party, and that’s how we want it; we really do have in-built senses of property ownership and reciprocity, and that was nature’s idea not some power-accumulating human being. Charity? We give because we want to; those who compel others to give, because their idea has to be better, are not being charitable.
Law. Yes, power is used to implement it, but we keep that to an absolute minimum, instead respecting the accused’s freedom as much as we can right up until sentencing and then again as soon as the sentence has expired. Policing is by the consent of the people. We have rules for the police and precedent to constrain judges and we even provide lawyers to assist lay persons in enacting their rights.
Science, for most of its existence, has been done by enthusiasts who simply want to do it. The scientific method tries to keep science up to a decent quality, which seems like an idea that could use some power, but actually what happened is if other scientists didn’t trust a paper or a result they just walked away which is a direct reflection of what I said in my first PP article about social disgust, an aspect of conscientiousness. Conscientiousness per set acts in a non-compulsive manner; just the use of distancing. No power needed!
Religion places mythical power in the hands of a God figure who is not mortal. This way, it tricks us into keeping real (human) power out of things as much as possible. The church may have wielded some, but the people could always argue against them using God’s greater power as a lever. Neat trick! While there seems to have been ideation in the creation of religions, over time they have tended to absorb the personality norms of their followers and hence their evolved-in tendencies. Religions are ideas modulated by humanity.
We vote in democratic elections not to exercise power over the nation and get our ideas implemented (by force), but rather to “clip the wings”
whenever we see too much power being accumulated at the top. We don’t like it and we act to limit it. EU? Too much power. Two family dynasties exchanging the US presidency? We don’t like it. Again, such a tendency is the expression of social disgust, which is motivated by trait conscientiousness.
The fact that those two outcomes were such a surprise to the left brings us right back to the underlying asymmetry in political orientation.
Lefties lack conscientiousness and simply can’t see why we shouldn’t just concentrate power to implement ideas. Hitler and Stalin, they say, just had the wrong ideas. Theirs are ever so much better. And so very big.
Ed There may be some disruption early tomorrow morning. It should last no more than fifteen minutes.