We’re not trying to live like our ancestors, but to do something totally new: to preserve the most helpful complex technologies, while shifting to a political and economic system where power is fully shared.
— Ran Prieur
It seems like ages ago when I wrote about the logic of power. To sum up that post, I argued that it is not possible to fix domination by seizing power. When a group outdominates the current dominators, they become the new dominators. This really ought to be clear by now to anyone looking to “change the world.” It has nothing to do with faulty characters of the revolutionaries. It has to do with the logic of power. Boggles the mind, though; people still try again and again to grab power from their “oppressors.” And they are equally frequently admonishing fellow revolutionary spirits to “dismantle” power as though it were scaffolding.
What is power, anyway? It seems to me that power in its most basic sense is potency. Ability to do, to accomplish. We are all given power along with life, and all adults have, fundamentally, more or less the same amount. In the personal sense, of course, individuals vary somewhat, depending on their levels of energy, their vitality, strength and perseverance, and their specific talents. Their power also waxes and wanes depending on state of health, age, and other factors. But in the “state of nature” personal power fluctuates within a relatively narrow range.
So this type of power is often spoken of as “power-to.” Looking at the uses of power specifically within social settings, however, there appear to be two other kinds of power: power-over, the ability to force others to do one’s bidding against their will, and power-with, the use of power together with others in a variety of voluntary, collaborative ways. Much of the malfunction of “this civilization” has to do with its heavyhanded reliance on power-over.
Power is a form of energy, then. And as other forms of energy can be temporarily gathered up and stored, so can human power. Temporary power acquisition by individuals can be beneficial. The leader of the hunt is given the power to direct the day’s maneuvers. Back in the village, though, he gives that power back. He does not hoard it, bossing people around. And if he does try, tribal folk have in their repertoire a variety of tactics to put him back in his place, and will be less likely to grant him power next time around.
Even in our culture, such ad hoc power acquisition can be a force for good. The fire brigade captain alone directs the action during a fire, and the team is better off. It can be argued that temporary concentration of power in an individual or group is one of the ways healthy power can be used. It is when someone begins to accumulate power the way an alcoholic hoards booze that things go awry.
Power, like water, needs to flow to stay healthy. When it is hoarded and congealed, it goes stale and eventually poisonous. And when it turns toxic, we find ourselves in a grim fairy tale: the person who hoards it will be sickened by the power he wields, and anyone who tries to grab that toxic power away from him will be poisoned and corrupted in turn. Once you touch that poison, its evil magic will turn you into yet another marionette goose-stepping in the domination death march.
How then do we deal with power gone toxic? How can we change the world without touching that poison, without trying to “dismantle” it, without any involvement with it at all?
Congealed power is an attractor. You cannot seize or dismantle an attractor any more than you can seize or dismantle a whirlpool in a river. When the river no longer feeds energy to that particular whirlpool, the eddy will weaken and disappear. Attractors are ‘dissipative dynamic structures.’ They need constant input of energy to keep going, just like a lightbulb needs a constant flow of electricity to keep emitting light. Once the flow stops, the light goes dark. There is no need to seize the lightbulb, nor to dismantle it, right? If we want another type of light, that’s where we direct power and attention.
If we want our power to flow and stay healthy, we pass it from hand to hand; we share it. We pay it forward.