From the February 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard
The concept of power is a confused one. Whether we're thinking about political and social institutions, or individual relationships, power means to have some dominance or control. Capitalism, a system based on production for profit, works in the interests of a minority — those who own and control the means of life. Workers vote into parliamentary power, political parties pledged to the continuation of capitalism — parties which operate against their interests. As long as the workers allow this situation to persist, a conflict will exist between “us and them”, the majority and the minority, the producers and those who own, the powerless and the powerful. To resolve this conflict we have to understand what power really means and what it could mean. We have to challenge the whole ideology of present social arrangements.
There are two essentially different uses of the word power. The first is the typical way in which we experience power in capitalism; the power which other people exert over us. Because workers believe that the present system is the only way of organising society — that it has always existed and must therefore continue to exist — they go on allowing others to control our lives. Small wonder. From childhood to old age, we see and fit into the social arrangements of the society we are born into. We experience the authority structure of capitalism, at first through the family, with its extended period of “childhood" and legal powerlessness. Later through schooling, through churches, through employment, the newspapers, television and so on, we come to accept the view that some people are “better" than others, that we need "leaders", that hierarchies are inevitable and that left to our own devices, the workers would create chaos.
This indoctrination imbues us with a belief in our own weakness, in our inability to decide for ourselves. We learn to aspire only to a “normal” lifestyle and a mentality fragmented by the crippling contradictions between what we feel ourselves to be and how capitalism compels us to behave. As we grow up in this society, our hopes and expectations are progressively impoverished. Children, for example, are constantly learning, constantly active in response to the world they find around them. Contrast this with what we all learn in school. Education exists to train us for our function in the larger world, beyond the school and family, for an adulthood where our behaviour fits the requirements of capitalism.
In classrooms children learn to sit still, to “do as they’re told — or else” (and the punishment system of the school mirrors in miniature the punishment system of the wider society, with its “detention” and centres for the “maladjusted”). Ultimately, children learn that if what they want to do conflicts with how the teacher — the person with power over them — expects them to behave, they cannot beat the system. There are only two choices: either to respect and conform to the superiority of those who control them, or to channel their nonconformity and disrespect into a negative form — rebellion and disruption. Whatever else children learn at school, they are forced into the habits of passivity and powerlessness, to external regulation and imposed definitions of their capacities and aptitudes. They learn to be one of the crowd or risk the cruelly isolating behaviour of other children. From schooling and elsewhere we are all then coerced into an evaluative, limited and impoverished sense or view of ourselves and our needs. The opportunity does not exist for young people to continue the way they started out, with a “natural" and integrated active approach to their environment.
Capitalism creates disintegrated individuals and a disintegrated society; one which lives out of harmony with its people's material needs. In this society constraints are invariably imposed on us — we are governed, not self-governing. Is it surprising then that power has become a word with wholly negative connotations? In capitalism, power means oppression.
In sharp contrast is the original derivation of the word — the French verb “pouvoir” meaning “to be able". So power means also an "inherent quality in something" — whatever that something can do. It means an active property — a physical strength, energy itself residing in the material nature of an organ or mechanism. In this sense power is simply the ability to “affect” — the power of a herb or a drug to affect a body, the power of the press to affect opinions, the power of a film to affect our emotions, or the power of an argument to affect our ideas.
If we look at power and society in this context, we can see how that society functions. Physically we need certain things to sustain life — we need food, warmth, shelter, we need to reproduce ourselves and we need to achieve some sort of integration with other parts of the natural world. People are part of the natural world; it is therefore inseparable from our existence that we should be active; our activities are the means by which we express our abilities, our capacities, our human powers. It is these powers and activities which create wealth. Workers produce the food, the energy, the building materials; we operate the transport networks that distribute them.
In other words it is our labour which sustains life on this planet. It is in us. the people who work and produce useful wealth, that the power in society actually resides. Paradoxically, the workers who produce all that is useful at present don’t engage in this activity for themselves: the owners live parasitically on our backs, we are giving them sustenance by our labour and the quality of that sustenance is far higher than we'll get in this system. “Human power” — the human ability to be active and to be effective — could be used by us, the majority of people who are producing wealth anyway, in our own interests. It is precisely this consciousness of our own nature and our own class interest and our own needs which capitalism attempts to drum out of us. The dominant ideas of any age are those produced by and in support of the status quo — the interest of the controlling powerful class. The development of an education system with the characteristics already outlined, is necessary to train us to accept a social system which is at odds with our perceptions of our own natures. We have to be taught to submit to control from beyond ourselves — it is necessary that we go on believing in our inabilities and weaknesses.
There is another contradiction in the belief that we who produce wealth cannot do it for ourselves. This theory has it that we’d be driven by insatiable urges to kill and maim and rob: that we’d create chaos in the world. There is an irrational belief that we need money and markets, prisons and property, to prevent this happening. The agonising irony of this belief lies in the fact that it is capitalism itself which creates such behaviour. Wars fought in the interests of the capitalist class cause workers to murder each other. Theft is a concept valid only through the existence of private property. As for chaos: what could be more chaotic and irrational than an economic system where people starve to death while glib politicians speak of “overproduction" and pay farmers not to produce food? It is impossible to imagine how a world community, conscious of its needs and producing directly in response to them, could fail to function better than that. Still, it seems their propaganda has usurped our rationality — we go on denying the evidence of our senses.
Under capitalism virtually our only experience of the use of our abilities is in the sense that our capacities are regulated by others. We have no experience of how to use our abilities and powers for ourselves in our working lives. This has repercussions in personal relationships, simply because we are alienated from our abilities: we sell them weekly-and monthly, they don’t seem to be ours. Much is talked about power in relationships — about gratuitous acts of cruelty and violence, about sadism and masochism. Most of this behaviour can be traced back to our attitudes towards two particular forms of learnt behaviour: dominance and submission.
Why is such behaviour typical under capitalism? The fundamental cause lies in the opposed class interests, which requires that one class dominates and the other submits. Associated with this are the values we have had bred into us: our belief in the need for leaders and authority, our acceptance of the evaluative definition of ourselves by others (so that status can be awarded accordingly), and the attitude we have acquired of constantly assessing ourselves in comparison with fellow workers to decide who is “better” and who “worse”. Attitudes like these ensure that domination and submission continue: they ensure we use our “powers” against ourselves. We do not recognise that our interests as a class coincide. We spend our energies fighting among ourselves, men against women, blacks against whites, salaried against waged employees, young against old. The competition for artificially scarce resources encourages this class divided, mutually hostile attitude.
Because of all this our daily existence is made up of frustrating experiences, of contradictions and tensions in our working and personal lives. A sense of frustration usually has one of two effects, both destructive: it may be expressed outwards in angry and aggressive exhibitions, or inwards, causing stress illness, withdrawal and depression. The only positive way of resolving this frustration is to recognise it for what it is. Frustration is a sense of powerlessness, an inability to express what we feel to be our energies and powers. Frustration is synonymous with a feeling of “lack".
Under capitalism we are controlled externally, we are not in control of our own lives, and we lack a material existence in line with our needs. This situation will only change once we become conscious, as a class, of our power. Our weakness is a myth. Human beings are active and thoughtful; already the working class runs society from top to bottom. What we urgently need to do is create a society in which these abilities can be used productively. Socialist democracy means that we express our own sense of what we need, that we control our lives directly, develop our powers and use them for ourselves. Socialists rehabilitate the idea of “power”, to act on that frustration to end it.