There is a mob outside of your house. They have been ravaging the city for the past five days, killing, looting, and burning everything in sight. They are outside your house, and they are calling your name. Not knowing what to do, you hide under your bed, but they break in, find you, and pull you out. You partner fights them off, but the crowd is too strong and they haul you away from your home. They take you to the biggest stadium in the city, and they crown you ruler of one of the greatest empires in the known world.
This is what happened to Hypatius during the Nika revolt of 532. Aiming to depose emperor Justinian I, an angry mob of chariot hooligans (imagine if sports teams were also political parties) found the nephew of former emperor Anastasius I and decided to claim him as the new ruler of the Byzantine Empire. Hypatius did not want to become the new ruler; he did not even want to leave Justinian’s palace to go home in the first place. Unfortunately, he had no choice in the matter. He was the heir of a powerful lineage, and a threat to Justinian’s rule. As the mob of 30,000 were being systematically slaughtered in the stadium, Justinian and his wife Theodora had Hypatius killed.
It might feel emotionally correct to say that Hypatius was powerless in this situation, but in a way he really wasn’t. Apparently, at least thirty thousand people wanted to be led by him, including some senators. If he had wanted to do certain things with his influence, he actually had some very significant capabilities. Maybe with a more motivated platform he could have done something significant with the power he found himself stumbling into. On the other hand, emperor Justinian himself was very limited in what he could do despite being lucky enough to have his two greatest generals and tons of gold present. According to the sources, Justinian did not actually want to kill Hypatius, but his wife understood and convinced him that the man was a constant threat to their government so long as he was alive, no matter how limited his ambitions were.
I want to suggest that the most powerful people in any community are often severely limited in the choices they can make. Hypatius could use his name to influence tens of thousands of people but he never had the choice to live a normal life. Justinian I could move the gears of his society towards his wild ambition and political imagination but he still couldn’t spare one of his friends. A crime boss may decide who lives and who dies, but they can never be honest about their emotions or otherwise show “weakness”. A powerful business person can bend the machinery of society to their will, but only if such bending maintains a competitive edge for their businesses and continues to augment profit. Powerful people are, in general, not able to challenge the source of their own power.
Power is the possession of control, authority, or influence over others. Agency is the capacity of an individual to actively and independently choose and to affect change. An example of someone with high agency and low power is Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond. Living as a hermit means one is able to make essentially any spontaneous decision they want entirely of their own accord, but obviously without the ability to influence other people. Another individual who exhibited a radical degree of agency is Muhammed Ali. He was able to be true to himself even when it cost him immensely, and refused to constrain his decisions to fit the expectations of his culture or society. When women demand the right to take combat roles in the military, this is a demand for more agency, i.e. an expansion of the choices they’re able to make. The fight for recognition of trans people can also be seen as a struggle for agency. Namely, people want to be free to realize their inner lives and act in accordance with their values.
This distinction between power and agency is one I rarely hear being made, but it’s important. It’s easy to confound the two concepts and assume that the acquisition of power automatically leads to more agency. For example, Muhammed Ali probably would not have been able to make many of the decisions he did without the wealth and influence he gained from his career in boxing. However, this path by definition cannot work for all people. Power is a relative concept: if you hold control over other people, that means limiting their agency to some degree. Tying agency to power also means you are beholden to the source of that power. Muhammed Ali was willing to take substantial financial and career losses to conscientiously to the Vietnam War, but ultimately he was able to leverage his value as a media and cultural figure to recover. Not all individuals or institutions are set up this way.
Corporations are required to maintain competitive levels of profit to hold on to shareholders and stakeholders. If a corporation makes decisions that threat its profitability, investors interested in their own wealth and power will seek out competitors who do a better job maximizing profit. The corporation upon losing its investors also loses the liquidity it needs to continue functioning as a business and will be forced to either fix their policies towards maximizing profit or go under.
In May of 2020, JC Penney filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In November, the 118 year old retailer was bought out by Brookfield Asset Management Inc. and Simon Property Group. Although this event is of course part of a major retail collapse brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic, it was preceded by a long downward spiral economist Panos Mourdoukoutas attributed in part to a temporary decision the company made in 2012. CEO Ron Johnson saw a problem with what the traditional promotional or “high-low” pricing strategy. Basically, department stores will put their initial offerings at ridiculous prices, say $100 for a pair of pants. No one in their right mind is going to buy at that price, but eventually when they it’s time to sell, they’ll put on a “sale” that marks the pants down anywhere from 30–70% off and that will represent the actual market price. This of course entices customers to buy more at higher prices because they’re mentally anchored at the higher price. Buying a pair of pants for $50 may feel ridiculous, but buying $100 pants for $50 is a steal.
This is a really manipulative practice, obviously. JC Penney’s “everyday low prices” sought to save real estate and capital being wasted on holding onto all of the dead weight merchandise and offer competitive prices all year round. Unfortunately, people were so used to the fake deals and manipulative pricing that the move actually cost JC Penney significantly in sales. According to an article written the day after Ron Johnson was fired, the JC Penney stock dropped to about 1/3 the value in 2013 of what it had been five years prior. JC Penney was forced to return to its old manipulative pricing strategy to survive as long as it did.
“We’re taught Lord Acton’s axiom: all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believed that when I started these books, but I don’t believe it’s always true any more. Power doesn’t always corrupt. Power can cleanse. What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals. When you have enough power to do what you always wanted to do, then you see what the guy always wanted to do.” — Robert Caro
Obviously, it matters who wields power. Human beings are responsible for the choices they make, and holding a large amount of influence and power is a responsibility and a privilege, not an excuse. That being said, there is usually a selection process involved with who gains power, and limitations inherent in the institutional capabilities of those who hold that power. Even the most absolute dictator has to work within the confines of the systems that define their own power. The most significant consequence of this is that a change in leadership should not be expected to result in a substantial change in the way a system is run unless there is an actual fundamental restructuring of the way power works within that system.
I’ve been motivated to write this article because of the increasing rise in political violence and authoritarianism in the United States. This rise does not exist in a vacuum. People are recognizing that the current system is not working for them, and many of them believe that if they provide the right leader with absolute power they will be able to solve all of their problems with sheer force of will. The current response to this has for the most part been incredibly impotent. We need better tools to fight authoritarianism with. Authoritarianism is the attitude that started the Nika Riots. The emperor ignored his people, they reacted violently, and then he killed 30,000 of them in cold blood.
Authoritarianism is never a valid reaction to political disfunction, and we need to make that clear within our political discourse. At the same time, we need to develop alternatives to the system currently in place to address the real needs of people and build genuine long term stability. This means rethinking our relationship with power. We need to talk about this now. A dangerous precedent has been set which has only cemented the authoritarian lines of thinking that have been developing for a long time now. The way we react to this over the next few years is going to define our future. We need to talk about this now.