Most generally, “The power of man is his present means to obtain some future apparent good” (Hobbes, p. 56). The ability to get what one wants because one believes it to be good is what the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) calls “power.” Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), another English philosopher, defended a very similar conception of power. This is power to get what one wants.Much more common, however, is a more limited conception according to which power consists of getting what one wants from another person, particularly if it is ceded unwillingly. Thus Max Weber (1864–1920) defines power as “the probability that one actor in a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests.” Power here concerns the relationship between individual actors or groups of individuals where some are able to do as they please in spite of the resistance by others.
However familiar, the preceding definition has encountered many criticisms and has had to defend itself against other concepts of power. Some theorists have pointed out that we do indeed exercise power when we overcome the resistance of others. But power can also shape situations and persons so that they will never think to resist. Instead, they submit willingly to a yoke, which later, perhaps, they may find onerous. The power to manipulate so that resistance does not arise is more impressive than the power to overcome resistance. Telling a child about to be inoculated that “it won’t hurt” sidesteps the child’s resistance and struggle. Official lies that persuade citizens that they have been attacked by a foreign power, when in fact it is their government that is the aggressor, have persuaded many who would not ordinarily consider becoming soldiers to flock to the flag of their country. The number of casualties in a war and the extent of destruction and suffering imposed would produce strong criticism, but if no one knows about the damage done by the armies, opposition will not develop.
Manipulation occurs between individuals and groups. But preemptive shaping of the agendas for discussion and action may be much more insidious and less deliberately deceptive. There are organizational structures that, although not intended for that purpose, function to lessen dissent and opposition. Electoral systems often function in that way, especially in a situation of severe economic and social stratification. The dissatisfied have a ready mechanism at hand for expressing their discontent, but unless they belong to the ruling elites, their efforts will consume a great deal of energy but bear little fruit. Such tamping down of discontent may be the unintended consequences of certain political arrangements. There exists no ready term for power in that sense. Terms sometimes used in this context such as hegemonic power or ideologies are often understood in an excessively intellectual sense. At issue here is the power, inherent in existing institutions, of privileged strata of a society to avoid popular criticisms and demands.
These various forms of power, whether intentional or the side effect of certain political institutions, still deal with antagonists who are latent, if not actual, resisters. Were they not misinformed, or sidetracked by the complexities of electoral politics, they would certainly express their discontent quite vocally. These are all different variants of power that some one or some group has over another, individual or group. They are still variants of the power to dominate. But not all power is power to dominate. Influence is the most obvious example of a different kind of power. Frequently someone is only too glad to follow the wishes of another whom they love and who loves them. Their love is strong; there is no shadow of a threat to withdraw love if the other does not yield. But each is glad to do what is asked of them because it pleases them to please their lover.
In similar ways parents and children often have influence over one another. Each person has power in relation to the other—a power freely given— which is power to influence the other. Influence does not dominate and neither does authority: one allows another to influence one’s thought and action because the other is an expert, or a revered spiritual teacher. Their power to give us orders or directions is, in some way, legitimate. (The word authority also has a different meaning. “The authorities”—not only legitimate authorities—are only too frequently able and willing to dominate by making us do what we do not want to do.)
Neither influence nor authority is the power to dominate—power over. Instead it is power with that arises out of the cooperation of several individuals or perhaps an entire people. We experience this in times of crisis, in a family or in a nation, when everyone ignores their own immediate needs and desires and pitches in to solve a shared problem or protect the entire group against imminent danger. ManyScholars pointed out that person gains strength from cooperation, from a shared sense of a common goal or mission: Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but also to act in concert.
The familiar slogan “United we stand; divided we fall” represents the popular understanding of this power that arises out of unity and cooperation. This power enhances the life of a nation and stiffens its resolve and ability to overcome difficult challenges. Only when it loses this power with does a government have to resort to violence. A nation subdued by violence may be tyrannized, but in order to govern it, one requires the support of the people. Only then can one have power. Such power with exists not only in larger groups but is important in the relations between very few people. Couples find themselves better able to confront problems and to tackle difficult tasks because their shared values and understanding of the world increase their power. Power grows out of the mutual respect and recognition of two persons. Small groups, like families, grow better able to face demanding tasks when their mutual respect and understanding makes each stronger and wiser.
In the intellectual space of the West, power with, if recognized at all, is assigned a subsidiary role. But anthropologists report that among many of the indigenous inhabitants of the American continent, power was traditionally of this sort— power with. The chiefs of many tribes in North and South America did not have any power to dominate or to coerce. They provided leadership because they were respected. Many tribes had two chiefs; one led by authority and the voluntary compliance of the tribe’s members in peace time. The other, the wartime chief, had the more familiar kind of power—the power to coerce.
(Excerpt from: Gary Nicolson ‘Power and Powerless’)