ABSOLUTE POWER

This essay includes thoughts about the true nature of power and the origins of hierarchy. It makes the point that power is never absolute, whether it is employed in the attempt to technologically control nature or to politically dominate populations.

"All power relationships are interactive, mutually modulating, reciprocal."

POWER IN PRE-LITERATE CULTURES

Think about what it must have been like to be an early human. You roam the plains in small communal bands. The women gather nuts, berries, roots and bugs for food; the men hunt lizards and other small game. Spirits reside in every rock and tree and animal. Nature is alive.

Nature can be terrifying, bringing violent storms, freezing cold, poisonous insects and dangerous animals. But it can also be bountiful, providing food, shelter and pleasure.

To a small extent, you have control over nature. You have learned to use tools for hunting and cutting. You have learned how to set traps to catch game and build simple shelters against the elements. But nature also controls you, setting the rhythms of your life, bringing the threat of famine and illness.

You perceive yourself as a part of the interconnected web of nature, influencing it and being influenced by it. You are not separate from nature. Every action you take affects nature, and its every act affects you. You don't set yourself above nature, nor do you consider nature above you. Nature may be more powerful than humans, but it is not All-Powerful. Accordingly, the nature spirits you worship are not omnipotent.

You live in a world of interconnectedness—a junior partner in a great cosmic plan. You perceive power as an interplay, an interaction, and your social system is modeled after this conception of power. It would never occur to you that one social role could be superior to another, or that a certain talent was more important to the well being of the tribe than another. Even though there are elders in positions of authority, every member of your group is valued for their unique personality and abilities. And the elder leaders of your tribe realize they need your support, just as you need their guidance.

TRANSCENDENT POWER

Now imagine your shock at the revelation of a new idea that is destined to change the world. It was thought up by a group of male hunters who belong to a secret cult. The idea is that of a supreme God: a single spirit that is omnipotent. This God is a terrifying spirit that answers to no one and no thing, that rules over nature, over humans, over other spirits. Judge, jury, executioner—no appeal. Thus is born the idea of absolute power; power that transcends the world, that dominates everything.

Certain people who claim they can communicate with this God now set themselves apart from the rest of the community. They are the priests. They are powerful because they have access to power. They form a class. This is the birth of another new idea: hierarchy.

HISTORY

The rest is history (literally the beginning of history and civilization). Hierarchy means there are the dominators, and there are the dominated. The cosmic model of God ruling over nature and humans is reproduced in the social model of an elite class ruling over other men and women. The paradigm propagates. Wars of domination begin to shape history into the bloody struggle we know it to be. State power grows. City-states become nation-states, which become empires.

The ideology of domination and control took another ominous turn in the 17th century with the birth of science. God was dead, but now there were new rulers of nature—human beings. The religion of science and technology is all about domination and control: domination and control of nature, domination and control of other humans.

RECIPROCITY

When we lived close to nature in egalitarian, matricentric communities, we understood the dynamics of give and take among humans, and between humans and nature. Today we tend to think of power as absolute—flowing one way, from the dominator to the dominated.

We think we can completely dominate nature through our science and technology. But we can't, and our attempts always have unforeseen consequences. We can dam the river, but the torrential rains will eventually come, the dam will break, and the river will wash us all away. We can never fully dominate nature because nature is a part of us—it is who and what we are. Nature lives within us as much as we live within it. All the elements of our highly "advanced" civilization ultimately depend on the natural world. We may think we are the Wise Rulers of nature, but in fact we are small children, dependent on Mama for our every need.

Likewise, despite appearances to the contrary, the rule of dictators and other elite groups is always weak and unstable. Political power is never absolute as long as the dominated maintain their freedom of will and their will to freedom. Even the most ruthless leader depends on the cooperation and voluntary submission of his subjects.

All power relationships are interactive, mutually modulating, reciprocal.

1997

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Horizontal God
A series of interesting essays that critique ideas about God and how they relate to “control, power and domination in human relationships.” Unfortunately, rationality is abandoned by article #6 when God is characterized as a benevolent participant in human affairs. But if you insist on believing in a metaphysical God, at least this approach respects human freedom and dignity.

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