Power is many things.
Power is a physical construct. Power thus refers to the force that can be applied to an object to change — or maintain — the state of an object. For example, an object at rest can become an object in motion if sufficient force, expressed in power, is applied to it. Power in this sense is often construed as a natural resource, finite as such. When considered as electricity, it often is.
Power is also a human construct. While many definitions exist, similar to its physical counterpart, power is, in this case, the ability to change—directly or indirectly—the behaviour or the state of an object, a system, or one or more individuals. We speak in terms of political power, economic power, and military power. Each is ultimately a human construct.
Unlike its physical equivalent, this kind of power can be renewed. It can also accrue to a given individual or organization, though in the aggregate there is a given level of power. Power is understood universally as an end, in and of itself.
The visible artifacts of this second type of power are many: money, title, location (the corner office, the floor of a building, or the building itself (e.g., the White House)), or physical artifact (e.g., orb, sceptre, tank, or fighter plane) among many others. The ultimate artifact of this type of power is war.
The invisible artifacts of power are recognized in the ways that others speak about power. The hushed tones or the use of deferential language are examples of this. In Algeria, le Pouvoir is a faceless construct to be dealt with warily. In other countries, it is known as the Deep State but it is nonetheless understood similarly as The Power.
Power is often confused with influence. Whereas power most necessarily includes the latter, the opposite is not always true. Newspaper and magazine rankings of the most ‘powerful’ people inevitably include many who are influential but whose ultimate power is limited, if existing at all. Power sells magazines, whereas the notion of ‘mere’ influence does not.
Whereas physical power must be converted from potential to kinetic energy to have an effect, power derived from human beings does not need to be exercised for it to have an effect. The mere suggestion that power can — and will be — deployed can often result in changes to behaviour occurring without the actual expenditure of power.
The immutability of this type of power—the fact that is not consumed, only transferred from one being to the next—is what sets it apart from other physical and societal constructs.
It is helpful to think of power as something akin to water. Yes, in that it ebbs and flows, but also in that, when put to effect, unlike a non-renewable resource like coal or uranium, water (or power) never disappears. Instead, it reforms and returns, much like the water that evaporates then falls back to earth in the form of rain. That rain, or power, may fall back into the same “reservoir” from whence it came just as it may fall elsewhere, on someone else’s land. One’s own power may also grow from another’s expenditure of power but the overall level of power does not change.
There is no inflation when it comes to power in a society, a country, or the world. There is an absolute level of power and yet the amount that each individual or organization can hold is relative, and in some cases, irrelevant. Thus the confusion between power and influence. To effectively exercise power over a group of individuals or an organization, there must be some preexisting relevance or bearing in place. The president of Russia, while powerful, has no immediate, direct power over me, a citizen of a country in North America — a continent surrounded by 2 oceans — with no family or business affairs in Russia.
Power is the ultimate zero-sum game. One’s gain is the other’s loss. There is no win-win when it comes to power. Any accommodation to reach an agreement between two individuals holding power involves a loss of power by one of the two, though it may not be described as such. The granting of some form of offsetting compensation in this regard should be understood as an expenditure of power.
The sooner that we understand that power itself will never disappear and that there is a finite quantity of it available, the sooner we will understand that the efforts to secure it and monopolize it and the conflicts and violence that occur in the search for power will never disappear. To believe otherwise is to be naive.
History is not static — nor linear — because the actors themselves are not static. And new actors are unlikely to be satisfied with the existing distribution of power, a lesson we forget at our peril. Though Francis Fukuyama famously declared “The End of History” in 1992 following the end of the Cold War, it has been anything but in the years since. One ‘history’ among many may have ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but others were just taking root.
The lust for power, the goal of accumulating, maximizing, and displaying power is a never-ending cycle. That is why war and all of the minor manifestations of power will never go away. Though the faces, names, and offices of the powerful and those who seek power may change, history is condemned to repeating itself ad æternam.
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