The Meaning of Power

I was at my local philosophy club last night for a discussion of ‘the meaning of power.’ One of the common descriptions of power that seemed to come up in our discussions was the ‘power’ of defiance or renunciation. Examples were given from the Holocaust of Jews surviving no matter what happened to them phyisically because of their mental refusal to surrender their personal dignity. Despite how appealing this picture of internal power and dignity seems I now think this morning that there is something flawed in the whole logic. It is based on a denial of the reality of power. If someone has a gun pointed at your head and is about to pull the trigger then saying that you are not afraid to die seems like no power at all. You may have a resiliant personality, or freedom from fear, but power? At the beginning of the discussion someone defined power as the ability to exert your will upon the world. Someone who is at the point of a gun or trapped in a prisoner of war camp has no ability to exert their will upon the world, other people exert their will upon the captive or the prisoner.

At its base this view of power seems comfortable because it allows us to believe that no one could ever completely destroy our personal dignity. It is a vision of power propounded by idealists or possibly those without much actual power in the world. And it is a vision of power that is promoted and mythologized in a lot of our entertainment, especially the movies. Two epic examples come to mind “Braveheart” and “Spartacus.” Both are essentially the same story of the slave who rebels, becomes free for a brief moment, is captured, and is then killed without losing their dignity. William Wallace cries out for freedom as he’s being disembowelled, Spartacus sees his child ride away into the sunset as he is crucified. What kind of strange distorted image of power is this? Aren’t these both examples of real, political power brutally destroying its opposition? Hollywood, our current myth factory, never tires of stories about the lone individual who triumphs over the odds or is defeated but still maintains their individuality. When are they going to catch up with the rest of the world and realize that power is much more insidious today?

How many of us actually feel any power in the world today and what kinds of power could we possibly exercise? I can choose what kind of clothes I want to wear, or what food I want to live, but my choices are constrained by the options offered by the market. A few months ago I tried to find some cheap banded-collar shirts and had absolutely no luck at any of the major retailers in the local mall or on the interenet. A few years ago I shopped for the same item and found many more choices. Has my power been eroded? Did I really have any power over my fashion choices before? One could always respond that I have the power to make my own clothes or reject the options presented by the market and create my own market of one. But the cost of pursuing that path is incredibly high. The time it takes me to learn how to make my own clothes and then do that on a regular basis is time that I could have used to write to my congressmen or learned a new programming language. Everywhere I look my choices are constrained by culture and the world around me. And most of those constraints are good things. I don’t want to live in a primitive world where I have to grow or hunt for all of my own food.

So where is power today for most of the people in the industrialized world? Those in the third world are still vulnerable to the brutality of civil war and genocide. The Holocaust showed that genocide is a real possibility in the modernized world, and can be even more horrific then it was before. But there are still a lot of things to be grateful for in the modern world. The computer and the internet have fostered dreams of power among those who did not have much power in the past. I hope that some of those dreams will come true, but the recent events and books like Lawrence Lessig’s The Future of Ideas make it clear that technology is not enough. The political world can still constrain us in ways it seems hard for the average individual to escape. What then to do?