Power

In the end, it’s all about power.

That’s what I’ve concluded.

Power. Ouch. Nasty word, with dark connotations, inspiring righteous anger and unrighteous envy. Perhaps it’s become a dirty word in part because we ourselves often feel so powerless. We want more but are slightly shameful in possessing such a desire. It’s so much easier and self-satisfying to judge those who use power inappropriately. Shamefully. Sinfully. One thing’s for certain the word ‘power’ triggers . . . you guessed it . . . powerful emotions.

We often ask what makes the world go round. What is it that drives us? Human beings are complex beings and it’s tempting to argue that forces such as Money or Sex or Religion are the things which drive us above all others. What about Family? The push for Freedom and Democracy? And of course, no list would be complete without Love. All important, of course, but towering over all of them is Power.

How so?

Greed is good – Gordon Gekko, Wall Street

Well, let’s start with money. Money buys stuff, but to be frank, it’s not really ‘stuff’ which money buys. Sure, if you’re rich, it’s nice to motor down to Monaco in the Bentley and enjoy the sunset from the jacuzzi overlooking the Med, but money’s capacity to buy luxury isn’t the real issue. Money buys status. The BMW is a status symbol, as is the Rolex. What is status? It is a bald statement about power. Nothing more, nothing less. Status tells the world that your earning power translates to worldly power, in business, in politics, in your social sphere. The issue of power surfaces even more clearly at the other end of the spectrum. The poor can’t afford many material goods, but their problem isn’t their inability to buy a bigger and better TV. They suffer from utter powerlessness. There are those who must decide whether to pay for heating on Monday or the bus ride on Tuesday. Lack of financial resources translates to lack of power over a life. Energy devoted to survival rather than opportunity. The choice of future which the middle class take for granted is nowhere in sight.

No prospects. No freedom. No power.

So what about sex? Perhaps sex is unaffected by our longing for power. Sadly, it’s not. At university, two Second Year students I once knew made a public bet with each other in the cafeteria that they would be the first one to bed a First Year. Because they’re idiots? Well, partly. Because they think that they will earn the admiration of their peers by their sexual prowess? Undoubtedly. But why does such behaviour draw admiration? Because it’s a display of power. It demonstrates sexual potency in the crudest form possible. A male’s consummated boast that he is a sexual titan is a form of power play. It tells the women in his circle that he’s sexually powerful and just as importantly, it tells other males that he’s dominant. Due to our history of misogyny, the promiscuous woman is not viewed in the same way. Giving herself away to multiple men signals moral depravity and believe it or not, powerlessness. In stark contrast to the man, whose exact same behaviour leads to high fives among his peers in the pub? What an absurd world we live in.

And then there’s rape, a crime which makes use of sex but which has nothing to do with sex. It is the worst example of a man’s exercise of power over another human being. Repugnant in the extreme.

What about Freedom? Is the human desire to be free a greater force than Power? Well, it’s power with a different name. Power is the ability to exercise the will in a chosen direction. Unless I’m free to exercise my will, then I’m powerless. They’re so closely related they’re indistinguishable. Nowadays, we are worshipers of Freedom. Or at least the personal version known as personal autonomy. In addition, we lionize those who have fought for the freedom of others, like Martin Luther King and rightly so. However, it’s relatively easy to see what the blacks of the Deep South were lacking: Power. They had no power over their lives, due to poverty and racist practices which shame the U.S.A., a nation born from the ashes of British tyranny. (That word ‘tyranny’ was employed liberally by the framers of the American constitution and of course, it’s a word associated with Power.) Freedom is all about Power, the power to determine the course of a human life, or the course of an entire grouping of human lives.

So what of Religion? Our most fundamental beliefs about reality, which form the basis of all religions, are foundational to the way we view our significance in the world. However, the various beliefs associated with each major religion, have little to do with Religion, capital R. The Sunni-Shia divide, which is currently ripping the Middle East to shreds, doesn’t have anything to do with whether Mohammed’s son-in-law was the legitimate leader of Islam. It’s tribal. Religion is more like a historical tag assigned to show whence a particular group derives its provenance and significance. Ultimately, though, religious groups draw their contemporary significance from their projection of power. It’s not religious beliefs per se driving behaviour. It’s raw power. To survive. To defeat the enemy. To dominate a rival group.

Atheists, at this point, would argue that tribalism of this kind is simply a reflection of the underlying force which drives ALL human behaviour: the drive to survive. They have a point. And of course, in order to survive, to ensure not just one’s own survival but the survival of one’s family line, this requires the raw use of power. On this account, Survival and Power sound like two sides of the same coin, inextricably intertwined. Yet mere survival isn’t the whole story. Indeed, atheism’s primary deficit is its lack of a driving narrative beyond mere continuance of a species. As I will argue in the next blog post, that’s where Power comes into its own. Power – properly conceived – is at the heart of all the best narratives and especially the one Huge Narrative which tells the story of All Things.

So what about Family? Well, it is true that our innate human desire to ensure the propagation of our family line is immensely strong. When it comes to our kids, there is very little that we will not do to ensure their welfare. Could it be, however, that this also has to do with Power? On this one, I’m going to avoid the cynical route. I really do believe that Family is driven by Love. Yup. Good old-fashioned self-sacrificial love. Hold on, surely we’re not so virtuous. Well, no, we’re not. Pushing my own little Jimmy in front of your kid so he gets to play Right Wing ahead of your little Tony surely reveals that promoting my own family ahead of yours has again more to do with Power than self-sacrifice. And in a world of limited resources, protecting my family ahead of yours necessitates that I exert power to do so with my credit card and rather self-centred choices. That aside – and I’m somewhat undermining my argument – I think that Love, the good kind, is at the heart of why we live the way we do. Because we love our families. And that’s a good thing.

Ask any dying person, of any culture, what is most important to them as they pass on – their family. Yes, their religion to varying degrees, but above all in this world is the love of family.

So maybe Love is the dominant force in the universe. What of power?

Well, as it turns out, Love and Power are intimately related. And that’s the subject of my next blog post.

© Richard Collins 2014

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The power of sharing is a force for good. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

P.S. Time for a little humour? My latest entry called Colour-coordination.