What Is Power?

Power is a ubiquitous word, time and again repeated by politicians, journalists, social scientists and people at large. One can lust for power or be a victim of it. In the 19th century ‘great powers,’ or a couple of European polities were known under this moniker, because they had built maritime or continent-wide empires. And in the second half of the 20th century the two ‘superpowers’ played out the Cold War across the entire globe. People or a person can have power, or can be powerless, disempowered.

No power can be enjoyed over inanimate objects, such as a lake or stone. That is why, the periodically reappearing scams of selling plots of land on the Moon or Mars do not last long. The elevated position of the Emperor of Mare Cognitum on the Moon, or that of the Lord of the Martian Canals do not have much appeal, apart from evoking a moment of hilarity. The ‘sovereign owner and ruler’ of these places is a permanently absentee lord with no means to visit his realm, let alone to exert his power over it or with the use of such a territory.


Likewise, people are unable to exert their power over living creatures. Obviously, they can eradicate some plants and replace them with others in afield as it happens in agriculture, or use oxen for plowing. In this way they harness elements of nature (that is, the biosphere) for their own needs, but do not extend power over them. No one wants to become Ruler of Cows, King of Potatoes, or Shah of Forests.


Power in order to work must be understood as a concept both by those who extend it and those over whom power is extended. The use of force between individuals to establish a hierarchical relation of power between them must be reflected in words, in language. Both the powerful and the powerless must be in the know of the concept of power, and fully comprehend the inherently unequal character of this relation. Ergo, only humans can exert power and be subjected to its whims.


Inanimate objects have no brain that would enable them to be self-aware, while animals have no language capable of generating a social reality, which is the case of humans. This human social reality – as ‘visible’ to people alone – makes it possible to ascertain that one is a ‘slave’ and the other is a ‘slave owner.’ The relationship between a farmer and his ox may be similarly unequal, but the ox will never ‘get it’ that it is just a ‘slave,’ while the farmer will never dream about boasting over a drink in a tavern that he is a rich ‘slave owner,’ because he possesses an ox.


Power is knowable exclusively to humans who generate and maintain the social reality through their use of language for group bonding and communication. Basically, power is the capacity of a person or an elite to decide about the lives of other people and their groups. But this relation to function properly it must be reflected in language, so the parties involved understand (even if they may disagree) the ascription of roles to play. They are compelled to play such roles by the threat and use of force of the powerful against the ‘disobedient’ powerless. This employment of force is ‘rationalized’ through language alone. One would never try to convince with an eloquent speech a stone or an ox to follow one’s orders.


May 2017