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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 than that.


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 mutual harms).

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.


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:

  1. vast scales such as whole populations, regional or global environments, and global economics;
  2. tiny scales such as those in nanotechnology, biotechnology, and nuclear science;
  3. dynamic complex systems such as human beings, natural systems, social systems, and climate;
  4. 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;
  5. 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.


There are many paths through which we enhance power-with:

  1. Through interaction, dialogue, and co-evolution we dance our way into new understandings, relationships, and possibilities, feeding what some call power-from-among.
  2. Through enhancing social capital we enhance relationships, networks, associations, connections, and communication systems that enable an abundance of collaborative power.
  3. Through facilitation, inspiration, evocation, empowerment, purpose, and motivation, we arouse and enable the latent power of a group and those within it
  4. Through community, mutual aid, sharing and systems that support these, we support each other in meeting our individual and shared needs.
  5. Through compassion, caring, and nurturance we feel for and support each other in ways that strengthen our whole group, community, and world.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Through understanding and facilitating the phenomenon of emergence, we catalyze the openness and creative interactivity needed for ongoing innovation.
  9. Through personal growth, spiritual work, and personal integrity we align ourselves to what some call power-from-within.
  10. 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 us.

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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