What is Power?

Thomas Hobbes defined power of a man as:

his present means to obtain some future apparent good.

He defines good as things that are of interest to any particular person for his appetite or desires.

For him, there are two types of power- natural and instrumental. Natural power is the ability of a person’s body or mind such as extraordinary strength, prudence, arts, eloquence, liberality and nobility while Instrumental power is the power derived from natural power or fortune through which one can acquire more riches, reputation, friends and luck.

A more contemporary definitions of such power of men are:

  • power is the capacity of an individual to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct (behaviour) of others
  • power is the ability to make people do what they otherwise would not have done

For Hans Morgenthau, the famous 20th century political thinker,

power is man’s control over the minds and actions of other men.

Placing the control definition of power in Hobbes’ definition, we get:

every form of natural and instrumental power is used to exert control over other people which then is used to obtain the good for the self.

Adding these descriptions, we get:

Power is the control over others as means to obtain the good for the self.

Where, the means (two types of power) in the Hobbesian sense is used to control the mind and the actions of others.

Control over others is the ultimate end. The most effective tool for this apparently is money. The use of money ultimately then is to manipulate others into doing things for the manipulator, because, everyone needs or wants money. Like a magnet manipulating iron pieces.

It is clear that control over the ones with most control will be the most effective.

I am interested to know what else derives power apart from money.

For Hobbes,

  • Having servants and friends is power because they make us stronger.
  • Having the reputation of power is power because it attracts those who need protection
  • Having popularity (reputation of patriotism) is power because it too attracts those who need protection
  • Having the quality to loved or feared by many or merely the reputation of such is power because through it one can have assistance and service of many
  • Good success is power because it creates a reputation of wisdom or fortune which makes men fear or rely
  • Relationship with men in power is power because it gains love
  • Reputation of prudence during peace or war is power because to a prudent man we all surrender ourselves easily than to others
  • Eloquence is power because it is ‘seeming prudence’ in other words, it looks like prudence
  • Form is power because it recommends men to the favor of women and strangers
  • Sciences are small power because it is present in few- in few. It is not understood by many.
  • Military Technology is power because they are used in defense and victory

Now, looking at all these points from the control perspective,

  • Having servants and friends surely implies having control. Control over servants is apparent. Control over friends exists in the form of mutual-wants, love, trust, bonding, whatever for which a friend can be manipulated into doing things for the manipulator
  • Having the reputation of power makes other people with less power, fearful or hopeful towards you. You can surely control those easily who are afraid or in-need.
  • Having popularity (fame) makes people with less popularity in awe, fearful and hopeful towards you. The reason there is control through popularity is that people tend to be more attentive towards those who are well-known which makes it easier to manipulate. Popularity can be of two types: a. positive b. negative. But I see one more factor. Popularity seems proportional to money. As it is easier to make money for a popular person than it is for an unpopular one.
  • Having the quality to be loved or feared by many or merely the reputation of such- is the same as above.
  • Good success brings control over those who yearn for success or more success. One way is through lessons of success, the other through the availability of fortune.
  • Relationship with men in power brings automatic control over others by the virtue of the relationship itself which makes other believe one is capable of influencing the powerful.
  • Reputation of prudence brings control through intellectual means. Other people will hear more and follow easily the people who are deemed to be prudent.
  • Eloquence, as described by Hobbes as ‘seeming prudent’ brings control for the same reason as above.
  • Form, by which Hobbes means appearance, brings control over those who get impressed by it.
  • In regards to Sciences, I believe they bring power if they can influence the powerful.
  • Control through Military Technology is self-explanatory.

Now, if we are to see how modern power-players have acquired their powers, we can make some interesting observations.

I see two large power entities today:

  1. States
  2. Corporates

States acquire their power, that is, their control over others as means to obtain the good for the self, by firstly, controlling (or owning) the elements like food, water, electricity, etc. that are of necessity for every citizen. In other words, they control the means needed for survival itself. Secondly, they control citizens through the citizens allegiance to the general-will. This sensitivity and vulnerability allows the State to use Force. Every other control that the state exerts is based on these controls. Everything else is a business from the state side. Hobbes considered this power of the state (commonwealth) to be the greatest of human powers as it is the

compounded power of most men, united by consent

Corporates meanwhile, acquire their power, that is, their control over others as means to obtain the good for the self, by controlling (or owning) the elements that are of necessity and want to its customers. Of course, the corporations that business on elementary things have the most power. Not all fundamentals are state controlled in all the places.

Due to the meteoric rise of technologies, another tool has quickly become one of the most effective means of control: Surveillance. 

Surveillance is used by both states and corporations. While this tool can be said to have been always used by both the entities, before the advent of our modern technologies, it was vague, impractical and very difficult to implement. Today, we can see both entities investing and vying for more and more surveillance data.

  • Surveillance is power because it provides information about the behavior and activities of others. This information is power because it provides knowledge of the ‘surveilled’, her strengths and vulnerabilities.
  • Surveillance brings control because it provides the surveillant with valuable knowledge as to who, how, when and where to control.

Surveillance then is the shortcut to the Morgenthau definition of power.

Who are powerful today?

Let’s talk about 3 major powers

The ones who control our fundamental necessities like security, food, water and electricity are surely the most powerful. This includes states and corporations which business on such elements.

After them are the ones who control our livelihoods and means of living.

Those two are followed by ones who control our information, hence, our mind, habits and behavior.

What is Power?

Power is the magnitude of control over others as means to obtain the good for the self.

This magnitude of control is dependent on peoples fundamental requirements as well as wants. It is like a control knob which every single person in this world has. It’s all about whether we are conscious of being controlled and willing enough to not be controlled—– or not!