There are at least four words missing from the English language; words that could more accurately describe the general concept of “power.” There are different types of power, and they are radically different.
Imagine two axes that cross to form a grid. The top two quadrants will refer to coercive power, or “power over.” This is power accumulated via violence, the threat of violence, or controlling or withholding resources needed for survival (water, food, shelter). The bottom two quadrants contain all forms of non-coercive power, or “power to.” This kind of power is gained by mastering skills, gaining knowledge, creating new things and retaining ownership over them, etc.
Now consider the left and right sides of the vertical axis. On the right side we can place “zero-sum” forms of power. If you acquire this kind of power, you take that power away from someone else. For example, if you acquire market share in a closed market, you’re taking that business (or those eyeballs) away from a competitor. Another example of zero-sum power is the power of a winning sports team. Only one team will win the league in any given season, and gain all the power that goes along with winning (money, fame, respect, better players, etc.). When you win, someone else loses.
Books like Machiavelli’s The Prince and Greene & Ellfers 48 Laws of Power deal with the ins and outs of accumulating zero-sum power (including zero-sum coercive power). I find these kinds of books to be mildly interesting at best, and repulsive at worst. I like winning as much as anybody, but wanting to “crush your enemy” is just sadistic. A player focused solely on winning a zero sum game puts winning above fair play and high ideals, and is willing to use deception, treachery, and kowtowing to get their way. Of course these techniques work, but when people use them they lose their potential for true greatness, for lifting up the human species.
On the left side of the vertical axis is non-zero-sum power. When you gain this kind of power you do not take it away from a competitor (at least not directly). Creating a new market, learning a new skill, creating something new — these actions lead to power not only for yourself but also for others. New power is created. Thus, non-zero-sum.
As a species, we are are vastly more powerful than we were in eons past. We can fly around the world, we can see into space, we can understand and cure many diseases, we can feed six billion people, we can look up most of the world’s information instantaneously, and so on. This is because we have collectively accumulated vast amounts of lower left quadrant (non-coercive, non-zero-sum) power. I’m calling this kind of power progressive power, though it could also be labeled world-building or even visionary power.
Unfortunately, the accumulation and abuse of coercive power is just as popular as it ever was. Non-zero-sum coercive power (upper left quadrant) is perhaps the most evil. Imagine a corporation coming into your village, paying off the local authorities, privatizing what was once free (streams and rainwater), and then charging you more than you can afford to use what should be, by any reasonable ethical evaluation, already yours. This kind of shit happens all the time. It’s non-zero-sum because the assholes are coercing people in a new way, exerting a new form of power. It’s new and improved evil. I’ve chosen the word diabolical to describe this quadrant, because the word implies cleverness, opportunism, and creativity (in the pursuit of evil).
Personally, I’m interested in accumulating more lower left quadrant power, and helping others do the same. I want to be able to do more, without taking away power from anybody else, and without coercing anyone. More lower right quadrant power (more market share for my music label, for example) would also be nice, and there’s nothing ethically wrong with it (competition in a reasonably regulated market is generally non-coercive), but it’s the lower left quadrant that helps us progress as a species.
If you don’t believe in progress, let me take away your iPhone and laptop. If you still don’t believe in progress, let me take away your running water, electricity, and modern building materials. You’re now living in cold, dark stone hut. Still don’t believe in progress? Okay, now all your metal tools are gone. Dentists don’t yet exist, so if you have a toothache we’ll knock out the rotten tooth with a rock. When are you going to start believing in progress? Progress = lower left quadrant power accumulation. I’m aware that huge numbers of people still don’t have access to clean water and electricity, but the majority do (and organizations like charity:water are working on providing access to those that don’t). If you still aren’t convinced that human beings are progressing as a species, watch this data visualization by Hans Rosling.
So how do we, both individually and as a society, accumulate more progressive power? And perhaps more importantly, why?
The why, at least to me, is obvious. So we can do more. So we can understand more. So we can, individually and collectively, have more influence over our destiny, and be less at the mercy of market bubbles, climate change, and nature’s capricious whims. (Don’t you agree that nature is cruel and capricious? Werner Herzog thinks so, and he has listened to a grizzly bear eat a living man. Maybe you should listen to the same tape before making up your mind.)
We should all try to accumulate more non-coercive, non-zero-sum power so that we can become a more glorious species, so we can explore the cosmos, become maximally intelligent, become more compassionate, say goodbye to poverty and needless suffering, and generally lift ourselves up. That’s why.
We also need lower left quadrant power to protect ourselves from the tyrants, sociopaths, and assholes, who will most likely always exist and will never give up their relentless reign of terror from the upper quadrants, constantly attempting to accumulate more “power over” via violence, the threat of violence, monopolistic market control, deception, blackmail, and manipulative control of others. These assholes used to control the entire world, but these days they are restricted to Mexican narco-gangs, isolated African dictatorial states, certain banking institutions, and the like. Though I will concede that Jarvis Cocker has a point, you have to compare the world today to the days of the vast Mongolian empire, when your city-state might receive a message like this.
Some of these questions were debated in response to Robert Wright’s book Nonzero. While I can’t contest the fact that today’s world contains weapons capable of wreaking horrific destruction (a nuclear bomb has more potential coercive power than a broadsword), I stand by my statement that the sociopathic tyrants of the world wield less relative power than they did in eras past. Overall, non-coercive power is beating out coercive power.
In my next post I’ll tackle the question of how we can accumulate more non-coercive power (both as individuals, and as communities).
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