The Dance of Power-over and Power-with
Power is not just about influencing and controlling people, any
more than art is just about painting or love is just about romance.
When we see the bigger picture of power, we find wholesome, creative,
exciting possibilities. We see both influence and partnership.
At its most fundamental level, power is the ability to create effects.
This deceptively simple definition can trick us into assuming we
know where effects come from and that we can just create them. The
reality is more complex, interesting, and ultimately empowering
THE MECHANISTIC WORLDVIEW AND POWER-OVER
Modern minds tend to assume that identifiable single causes generate
identifiable specific effects. This assumption underlies the remarkable
power of the mechanistic paradigm—also known as the linear,
Cartesian, or Newtonian worldview.
Applying this mechanistic view to human affairs, we see ourselves
separate from each other and from the world. We are responsible
for the effects we create—unless we are innocent victims or
beneficiaries of what happens to us. We tend to view people in a
given situation as either powerful or powerless. For example an
archetypal conservative might suggest that "poor people can
pick themselves up by their bootstraps!” An archetypal liberal
might claim that "poor people are victims of systems and more
powerful people!" Blame, shame, regret, sympathy, and outrage
are all natural companions of mechanistic power in the human realm.
So are pride and arrogance.
The mechanistic view specializes in what most people think of when
they hear the word "power"—a version of power often
called power-over—the ability to control, influence,
manage, dominate, destroy, or otherwise directly shape what happens
to someone or something.
I recently found this perspective well articulated in Moises Naim's
book The End of Power, which
I reviewed on Amazon. Naim describes how—despite the obvious
concentration of power in economic, political, and other realms—centralized
power is becoming harder to use and harder to hold on to. There
are too many challengers empowered by modern technology, globalization,
and mobility. Politicians compete with activists, journalists with
bloggers, security agencies with hackers and whistleblowers, established
companies with innovative start-ups and pirates, universities with
online sources of knowledge, militaries with grassroots militias,
dictators with social uprisings... the list goes on and on.
Naim sees this upwelling of bottom-up power as a real problem for
social order because he believes that when you lose control everything
turns to chaos and people get hurt. In contrast to that view, I
want to explore bottom-up power as a resource for social order—and
for orderly transformation into a more just and sustainable society.
Actually, even calling this kind of power "bottom-up"
is not fully accurate. Yes, there's lots of bottom-up energy going
on. But that phrase "bottom-up" serves more to contrast
it with "top-down" than to describe its essence. Its essence
is more about co-operation, networking, co-creativity, inspiration,
doing-it-ourselves, process, conversation, and other forms of what
I (and others) call power-with.
Power-with is the kind of power that arises through connection—connection
to ourselves, to each other, to what's going on, and to everything
else. We could describe power-with as holistic partnership power.
In its most mature and comprehensive form, it involves our ability
to see allies, resources, and possibilities anywhere and everywhere,
and to engage with them for mutual and collective benefit.
Power-with is not the opposite of power-over, because they can
and do co-exist. We see power-with enhancing power-over when work
teams collaborate to generate market dominance for their company
or when activist alliances overwhelm their opponents in the political
battlefield. We can also see it in how PR works with people's
instinctive urges and reactions to manipulate them into certain
beliefs and behaviors. On the other hand, we see power-over enhancing
power-with in competitions that promote collective benefits and
win-win solutions, such as the Olympics (at their best) and households
and schools competing for the lowest carbon footprint.
Despite these synergies between the two modes of power, it is useful
to notice their differences. What distinguishes power-with from
power-over is its vector, the flow and directionality of its energy
or impact. Power-over functions through linear A-to-B causation,
the ability to have direct impact, to create specific effects desired
by the those exerting the power. Power-with, in contrast, functions
through multi-directional interactivity and participation, usually
for mutual benefit (although short-sighted applications can produce
This brings us back to the assumptions we examined earlier: To
what extent are we independent agents who create and cause things?
To what extent are we participants in larger events whose causes
and effects are complex interdependent dynamics that emerge and
evolve continually from whatever is going on?
In its extreme form, this second more non-linear perspective sees
seemingly independent entities as "emergent phenomena"
arising from and manifesting the whole fabric of life, and seeming
causes as interdependent and probabilistic. In the spiritual realm
this non-dual or "co-incarnational" view is familiar to
Buddhists, Taoists, and meditators. In science it is home to ecologists,
quantum physicists, and complexity scientists.
STRENGTHS AND LIMITATIONS OF POWER-OVER
These modern sciences have discovered that we can't ultimately
reduce the wholeness of life to its individual parts and laboratory-simulated
single causes. The complexity of the real world resists our reductionism.
So we play mental tricks to maintain our narrow view, calling unexpected
or unwanted outcomes "side-effects". This mental sleight-of-hand
is a major factor in our degradation of nature and human lives.
Current crises are almost all composed of "side effects"
from our linear progress and productivity.
The linear power-over perspective, however, is not "wrong"
in any absolute sense. It is usually good for relatively mechanical
undertakings at human scale like building a house or scheduling
your day. In other circumstances, it can be safely exercised to
the extent we understand the larger contexts in which we're functioning,
pay due respect to aliveness and wholeness, and are prepared to
readily modify our ideas and actions in response to feedback.
But power-over comes with real risk of complex messy side effects.
That's why using it calls for enhanced humility and caution at the
beginning, oversight during its application, and/or protest at any
time from those aware of its limitations and dangers. This vigilance
is especially important when we exercise power-over in circumstances
involving any of the following:
- vast scales such as whole populations, regional or global environments,
and global economics;
- tiny scales such as those in nanotechnology, biotechnology,
and nuclear science;
- dynamic complex systems such as human beings, natural systems,
social systems, and climate;
- inadequate balancing feedback dynamics, such as in manipulated
elections, media, and legal systems—or in the time lags,
overshoot, and hidden positive feedback dynamics of climate change,
as when evaporating arctic methane makes greenhouse warming worse;
- other situations involving a real possibility for broad or longterm
damage as with the intrinsic risks of nuclear energy and GMO crops.
In other words, you can use power-over safely to hammer a nail,
but be very careful when using it with children, radioactivity,
and our world. Vigorously protest efforts to apply it to large living
systems without rigorous systems of review, answerability, and countervailing
forces over extended periods of time. This is the logic of the Precautionary
Principle which states that a new technology should only be applied
out in the world when it has been proven safe, rather than until
it is proven harmful.
A vivid example of the arrogant application of power-over is the
idea that because polar ice is melting, oil companies will soon
be able to exploit oil that has been trapped under the ice caps.
This profit-driven power-over impulse will generate more climate
change, more climate-related geopolitical conflicts, and more calls
for the further misguided power-over strategy of global geoengineering
to control increasing climate chaos.
Examine for a moment the power-over dynamics exemplified in that
narrative. Most obviously it features efforts to control and dominate
nature, to exploit its "resources" for profit while trying
to put its demons back in the bottle. Less obvious is the fact that
the profit motive driving all this is part of a larger system of
positive feedback: oil company profits get used to manipulate political
and legal systems to enable more profiteering while externalizing
costs (such as war and climate change) onto the government, the
public, the environment, and future generations. In systems lingo,
this is a parasitic relationship. It is supported by the manipulations
of PR and media control, but is actually built into the economic
and political systems. It would be possible to redesign those systems
if enough popular power-with is applied to them with adequate understanding
of the power-over dynamics currently involved.
Power-with is the power we get from partnering with the
entities and conditions around us. We use and support the qualities,
needs, and aspirations of people and groups—including ourselves.
We work with the aliveness and natural tendencies of animals, plants
and all kinds of living systems—from communities to forests.
We align ourselves with the innate properties of the tools and resources
we work with and with the flow and underlying dynamics of the situations
we find ourselves in.
The energetics of power-with are like those of a dance or a jazz
improvisation. Its exercise requires attending to, responding to,
learning from, and shifting with the reality—especially the
vitality—of what's around us, what's within us, what's in
front of us. Power-with becomes more useful and effective to the
extent we seek and recognize allies and resources even in problems,
enemies, and shadow dynamics. Someone for whom power-with is a life
practice finds an abundance of people and things to work with everywhere.
Power-with is not about suppressing our own needs and aspirations
to serve something or someone else. That is an effort to control
ourselves, which is a power-over approach. The essence of positive
power-with is mutual or collective benefit: I get my needs met and
exercise my best self by helping someone or something else meet
its needs and exercise its best self.
The most common power-with dynamic is teamwork—collective
intention and action. Our shared energy is focused on a shared goal.
Together we build the barn or get the law passed. In teamwork at
its best we experience a co-responsive, organic moving with
dynamic called “flow”. We often see this in sports teams
who are "in the zone" or in jazz improvisation groups
who are "in the groove".
Another common power-with dynamic involves mutuality, the kind
of reciprocal give-and-take we find in the symbiosis of flowers
and bees or of partners in a barter exchange. No shared goal needs
to be present except the expectation of shared benefit.
These two dynamics can combine such that our collective and mutual
activities support something larger than us which, in turn, supports
both or all of us. In a mediation we create an agreement that works
for both of us. In a gift economy people's generosity creates a
culture of abundance and a healthy commons that supports the well-being
of all participants. Plants breathing carbon dioxide in and oxygen
out—and animals breathing in that oxygen and breathing out
that carbon dioxide—create an atmospheric cycle that provides
abundant supplies of both oxygen and carbon dioxide to support all
life. This generates what I sometimes call whole-system power,
a big-picture form of power-with.
Whole-system power is easy to see in nature, where it
has been called the Tao—the Intelligence of the Way of Nature—an
emergent self-organizing property that characterizes the mutual
and collective behaviors in complex adaptive systems rich with feedback
dynamics that sustain them. Within healthy whole systems we also
find power-over dynamics such as predator-prey relationships, but
they are subsumed into a power-with regime that supports the long-term
wellbeing of all participating species.
Whole-system power is more than—or other than—the sum
of all the subsidiary dynamics operating among its participants.
It self-organizes both the system’s internal state and its
external responsiveness. Although largely unpredictable and uncontrollable,
a whole system's power is something we can creatively participate
in, using our power-with capacities to be surf its energy and contribute
to its healthy motions that support us and all the other participants.
This is the essence of sustainability. To the extent we engage
collaboratively with nature and our fellow humans, we generate whole-system
power that supports all entities involved and minimizes the dynamics
of depletion, conflict, and toxification that endanger the ongoing
health of the whole system we depend on.
RESOURCES FOR POWER-WITH
There are many paths through which we enhance power-with:
- Through interaction, dialogue, and co-evolution we dance our
way into new understandings, relationships, and possibilities,
feeding what some call power-from-among.
- Through enhancing social capital we enhance relationships, networks,
associations, connections, and communication systems that enable
an abundance of collaborative power.
- Through facilitation, inspiration, evocation, empowerment, purpose,
and motivation, we arouse and enable the latent power of a group
and those within it
- Through community, mutual aid, sharing and systems that support
these, we support each other in meeting our individual and shared
- Through compassion, caring, and nurturance we feel for and support
each other in ways that strengthen our whole group, community,
- Through resonance, synergy, and unity we align and integrate
the qualities and energies of who we are, who others are, and
what nature is, to greater effect.
- Through aggregation, collection, and accumulation of our shared
capacities and resources into social and natural commons, we build
our collective strength, resilience, and wisdom over time.
- Through understanding and facilitating the phenomenon of emergence,
we catalyze the openness and creative interactivity needed for
- Through personal growth, spiritual work, and personal integrity
we align ourselves to what some call power-from-within.
- Through learning from nature and evolution, our human designs
can tap the wise and well-tested power of natural systems to promote
survival and thrival. This includes working with whatever
aliveness is present—even when it seems to resist us. Permaculture
is exemplary. We can participate by facilitating, catalyzing,
serving and healing; by creating—and being attentive to—contexts
and fields; by being open and inclusive; and by noting and working
with the natural tendencies, needs, values, and gifts of all around
As we reach the global limits of what we can usefully dominate,
our future survival and thrival depend on how brilliantly we learn
to use power-with.
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