The Nature of Power, Part 1

Arrogance - The Power of Domination
Arrogance – The Power of Domination

I’m going to continue with how I ended the last post — the need to manage power. I believe it is essential to do so. I also believe that the book The Parable Of The Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (Andrew Schmookler, 1984) provides brilliant insight into the nature of power.

I am slowly re-reading this book (which I will refer to as Parable), so it will be long before I complete it (likely I will do a number of posts on it). For now, I do not want to lose my immediate insights (and a friend wants this information for a book she is writing). Much of these two posts will be a précis of the first Chapter of Parable.

First to understand power. The definition I use commonly is “the ability to influence.” I distinguish two kinds of power:

  • External power, or the ability to dominate, the ability of one party to impose their will on the second party without the permission of the second party.
    • Domination is characterized by fear, both on the part of the second party (fear of immediate loss) and also on the part of the first party (fear of reprisal).
  • Internal power, or personal power, the ability to influence because the behavior of the first party impresses the second party to the extent that the second party wants to interact with first party.
    • Personal power is characterized by a sense of aliveness, personal integrity, authentic relationships, and the ability to contribute.
    • Many people want this kind of power, both those who have it and those who do not. It is gained by personal growth.

So, some thoughts before I give you a précis of the first chapter of Parable.

Does a deer have choice? Yes, in a sense. Does a human being have choice? Definitely, and seemingly more so.

Can a deer have power. Possibly. Can a lion have power? Definitely a lion can be a dominator in seeking food sources. Can a human being have power? Definitely.

What are the differences? That is a part of what Parable seeks to address.

Parable suggests an alternative view to the commonsense view that human beings have created civilization by choosing beneficial outcomes for humanity. As evidence, the past ten thousand years of human development have been inconsistent and disappointing in terms of what humanity could have achieved, given the striving for good that cultural exemplars manifest. We are capable of great cooperation, but our consistent behaviors are competitive. Why?

First of all, the evolution of human beings has taken millions of years, not just ten thousand. For any species of life to develop, there has been the need for environmental stability. Life has basically been the adaptation to niches, only a few of which have then favored flexibility of response. The more complex niches have allowed more complexity to evolve. Selection eventually favored learning as a more efficient route of development, on which our human complexity has been built over several million years.

Next, because of their ability to learn, human beings maximized the development of culture, the ability to transmit what we have learned from generation to generation. As part of this, tools and language arose, as well as bodily modifications such as heels, hands and mouths to make use of culture.

But culture created the unpredictable animal, the freedom to choose. A “creature with the freedom to choose can be dangerous — to self, to others of his kind, to all life.” Thus arose the myths — only humans can confront the choice between good and evil.

The development of culture was radical, but culture “developed over hundreds of thousands of years without disruption of continuity” in individuals, society, and the natural order. Human societies were limited by the food that nature provided spontaneously! [These were the hunter-gatherers described by Herman in Future Primal, a people representative of the first democracy.]

The development of agriculture and domestication meant more food, more reliably, and thus open-ended changes in the structure of human society. Thus could society shift from hunter-gatherer (small, mobile groups, with social equality) to civilization (large groups, specialized).

In nature, all of life pursues survival, but within biologically evolved limits — “the struggle is part of order. . . . With the rise of civilization, the limits fall away.” Previously growth was limited by scarcity and consequent death. Civilization brought the capacity of seemingly unlimited growth.

In so doing, “full-scale civilization arose and showed a frightening face.” Social equality gave rise to “rigid stratification with the many compelled to serve the few! Civilization magnified the freedom, but was no longer subject to the limitations posed by nature. Civilization became governed a wholly new evolutionary principle, power!

To be continued.

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