I think a lot about power. Or at least I write a lot about power.
Without doing an inventory of my own writing, I suspect that much of my language seems negative – or at best critical – on the subject. Analyze power. Fight power. Systemic power…entrenched inequality resulting from systemic power. These are all phrases I’m likely to rattle off at a moment’s notice.
But while I think power is a critical topic, I wouldn’t say that power is intrinsically bad.
I would, however, say that power is intrinsic.
That is, power is a feature of the universe. It exists. It’s just there.
In a physics sense, power is the rate of work over time (P=W/t), where work is a force exerted an object. Changing the speed, direction, or characteristics of any object takes work, and work done over time is an expression of power.
A system without an exertion of power is static. Objects at rest stay at rest. Objects in motion stay in motion. And nothing ever changes that. No power, no work, no force exerted on any object. Static.
Being uninspired by the static universe, I prefer to embrace power as an articulation of change. Of the dynamic nature of existence. Of life.
But what does that mean in terms of social interactions?
A world in which no person has power over any other person at any time seems…unfeasible at best.
First, there are the simple cases of the very young or the infirm. Should a newborn infant have total and complete autonomy? I’m not child development expert, but I’m going to go with no. Perhaps there are certain rights that every person should have – a newborn shouldn’t be abused, for example – but the reality seems to be that a newborn can’t make all its own decisions.
For better or for worse, a mother has power over her child.
Once you’ve admitted power into your universe, the rest is just quibbling over details. Should people become autonomous at 5? At 10? At 18?
That’s a topic for rich debate, and noticeably different from an argument over whether power should exist in this adult-child relationship at all.
There are, of course, deep problems of power within our society. Those in power tend to grow and maintain power, while those without power tend to be permanently shut out of power – suffering dire consequences as a result.
I’d be the first to argue that the distribution and perpetuation of power is a problem, but that’s different from arguing that the existence of power is a problem.
In some ways, that frames the discussion differently. Instead of talking about how we should fight the power or build our collective power, perhaps we should step back and ask what power would look like in an ideal society.
It would still exist – it would have to. But it would be spread more fairly and subject to change.
Perhaps we would all have equal power, but only when averaged across an ever shifting sea of interactions.
You ask me a question about my expertise and I have the power. I ask you a question about your expertise and you have the power.
The power’s still there, but, you know – it all comes out in the wash.