Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society. – Michel Foucault
I have been thinking about power and what it really means in our lives.
Let’s start with a misconception – people often say that something is power. Knowledge is power. The person who holds the pen has the power. But power is power and it shows itself in different ways – it’s contingent on the situation and what’s going on around us.
The simplest form of power is brute force or the power of superior weaponry. The person who invented the sharp stick had power over animals. The power of the modern nation state rests in how far its weapons travel – the most powerful nations are the ones that can attack targets anywhere in the world.
But while superior weapons can win a war they cannot maintain peace. It’s well known that a military force will find it hard to control a population that does not agree to be controlled. You see that play out in battlefield after battlefield – after the quick victory comes the grinding conflict until all too often victors give up and leave.
Some people argue that in old conflicts, such as colonial ones, the powers gave up military control in exchange for contractual control. Poor nations that were once colonies remain poor, trapped in contracts that force them to repay old debts or take on obligations that oppress them. The power of contract benefits the wealthy – if you can force people to do what you want through the power of a contract that courts will enforce then you have control – you have power over them.
The power of weapons and the power of contracts is a particularly Western concept, the former a product of the industrial revolution and the latter dating back to the importance of the “Word” in the nature of Western thought.
It’s different in the East, and one expression of this is in Kakuzo Okakura’s “The book of tea” published in 1906. This is a unique window into an Eastern view of the West before the wars of the twentieth century. Okakura writes about “the gentle art of peace” – which you might contrast with Machiavelli’s “The prince”. The latter is about getting and holding power. The former is about the importance of tea.
It’s interesting that Okakura talks about a harmonious society as being weak against aggression. Liberals in society, the people who don’t want guns and want their children to be able to live a peaceful life are, by definition, less able to defend themselves against violence. But violence is not a long-term strategy – it does not create winners but ends up with pockets of defended land – the castles of old. You need something different if you want to have a peaceful society.
Okakura was writing more than a century ago and the problem is that perhaps we’re all becoming the same now. The twentieth century sparked an arms race and we now have a world that is controlled through military power and global contracts. We can write and bemoan what’s going on but perhaps for real change to happen we need to be able to sit and have a cup of tea with those we share a planet with, even if they are less powerful than us.