THE OTHER SIDE OF POWER
© Claude M. Steiner PhD
July 1, 2004
The American Power Nightmare
Chapter 1. Power Plays in Everyday Life
Chapter 2. Obedience; Why we Accept Control by Others
Chapter 3. The Subjective Feeling of Power
Chapter 4. Power Literacy; Understanding Power and its Myths
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(Back to home?)
THE AMERICAN POWER NIGHTMARE
Thirty years ago in the 1970's, when I started writing this book, there was an upsurge of interest in power. The cold war was in full force and America faced a formidable, seemingly perpetual antagonist. It seemed that in spite of all of its might, the nation was impotent. Understandably, the US citizenry became interested in power and powerlesness at the national and personal level. Books like The Power Broker, by Robert A. Caro; The Price of Power, by Arnold Hucschnecker, The Abuse of Power, by Newfield and Du Brill; Power, Inc., by Mintz and Cohen, Power and Innocence, by Rollo May; Tales of Power, by Carlos Castaneda; Power, the Inner Experience, by David McClelland; On Personal Power, by Carl Rogers, and many others, appeared continuously over a span of a few years. Of all the books on power, Michael Korda's, Power! How to Get It, How to Use It was practical, readable and sophisticated and became a sensational best-seller. It spoke directly and clearly about the everyday realities of power as it operates in the mainstream of American life: the business world. Almost simultaneously with Korda's book, How to Win Through Intimidation, by Robert Ringer, also became an instant best-seller. Ringer's book was less intricate and thoughtful, more down-to-earth; the common man's version of Korda's book. They both faithfully portrayed the kind of power relations we are all immersed in wherever we go.
Korda's book was an encyclopedia of observations about power behavior and because it was a major best seller I imagine that it had a definite effect on power behavior in industry and commerce. Korda pointed to the importance of the brief-cases, watches, shoes, and clothes that people wear. He proposed that ears, noses, eyes, and feet are as important as where we sit in our own or someone else's office, how we move around at an office party, or how we answer the phone. He claimed that all of these items are related to our level of power.
In a March 1977 Mainliner interview with Joseph Poindexter, Korda defines power extremely narrowly as "the ability to control people, events, and oneself.... In a word, power is control." He also subtly but very definitely admires power abuse: "(A) notion of power I'm fond of is: is the extent to which you can make others wait for you as opposed to having to wait for them. "
In his definition of power as strictly a matter of control over others, Korda followed the most common view. This all-pervasive notion is shared by most writers on the subject; power is defined by the control we have over others. The only disagreement about power seems to be whether power (control over others) is good or bad, desirable or undesirable.
Korda seems to admire people who are powerful but use their power over others smoothly and elegantly. For instance, he speaks almost lovingly of David Mahoney, his boss, chief executive of Norton Simon, Inc., at that time 52 years old, whose office "seems to have been designed to reflect the presence of power and money, in a quiet, self-assured style that is peculiar to late twentieth-century America." He describes stainless steel and leather furniture, enormous abstract paintings; everything is solid and expensive, "... what makes the difference is money."
Korda describes Mahoney's eyes: large, intelligent, hypnotic, unblinking, cold, shrewd. For Korda, Mahoney seemed to exemplify the ideal of power and success. Impressive offices, limousines, obedient and efficient employees, expense accounts, servants; in short, maximum control, minimum effort. In example after example in his book he endorses maneuvers for the same goal--control--as long as they are subtle, elegant, smooth, and secretive. He is a sophisticate of power abuse; it's good to have power and to use it to control others, as long as it is done with style. Most stylish, of course, is the capacity to appear to have no power at all while being all-powerful: "The contemporary American's type of power is to pretend that one has none."
In contrast to Korda's veiled support of power abuse, Robert Ringer, in his book Winning Through Intimidation, cuts to the chase. He assures us at the onset that there are only three types of people, all three of which are out to screw you so that you need not have any qualms regarding rapacious behavior of your own.
"Type #1 lets you know from the beginning that he is out to get all of your chips and attempts to do just that.
Type #2 assures you that he's not interested in getting your chips and implies that he wants to be fair with you. He then follows through and tries to grab all of your chips anyway.
Type #3 assures you that he is not interested in getting any of your chips, and he sincerely means it. In the end, due to any number of reasons, he, like Type #1 and #2, still ends up trying to grab your chips. His motto is 'I really didn't mean to cut off your hand at the wrist, but I had no choice when you reached for your chips.' "
According to Ringer, there are no Type #4 people: your choice is between #1, #2, and #3. In other words there is no such thing as a person who won’t try to grab all the chips only different levels of self deception.
Ringer calls these three types his professors at "Screw U." If asked, I imagine Korda would seem to be ambivalent about just which, of these three, he particularly prefers: Ringer's mind is made up. Type #1, the honest (because straightforward) vulture is his clear favorite, since he would rather deal with a straightforward competitor than with a Type #2, who has every intention of screwing him, but disguises his intentions successfully enough to confuse his victim. Type #3, the mystifying vulture, may be Michael Korda's favorite, since he seems to feel that the trick is "to make people do what you want them to, and like it, to persuade them that they want what you want." But regardless of type every one of these people deserves the same treatment "Grab their chips before they grab yours."
Korda and Ringer reflected what was going on and still is going on in a very large and influential portion of the world of business. In this world:
"There is a fixed amount applicable to a given situation at a given time, and what you have diminishes what someone else has by that amount. Your gain is someone else's loss; your failure, someone else's victory."
Indeed, for many, it is hard to see what is wrong with this approach. Control, power, and money do seem awfully attractive don't they? What else can make us feel as good? Who can argue that it is better to be without them? Why not pursue them? Love, fairness, and generosity sound good, but can we feed our children on them?
Still, the values of cooperation, mutual aid, kindness and compassion are equally attractive and they die hard. The fact is that by committing themselves to the power hungry life-style, people are leaving behind all of the different options in which achievement of power doesn't depend on reducing someone else's, or risking one's own, in a competitive gamble. The heartless attitudes about people and their feelings required by this approach to life have many well recognized, though silent consequences: alienated marriages, nasty divorces, ruined friendships, sullen, angry, drug-taking children, ulcers, hypertension, heart disease.
Ironically, Robert Ringer who wrote about the "Ringer Method" for automobile sales in which he details how to intimidate and screw your costumer, become a self-made philosopher for "free enterprise." In his later book, Restoring the American Dream, he cleaned up his act and re-sold it in the form of a Right Wing manifesto on Freedom, Individualism, and the American Dream. According to Ringer, "America can't afford not to have rich people, for they are the very backbone of productivity, employment, and a better life for all." The aplomb with which Ringer states his views can be understood if one remembers that he is, first and foremost, a salesman. It all sounds so plausible somehow. How did the rich become the backbone of productivity? What happened to the workers and their backs?
Politics is about power and how we get what we want. The personal is political; out personal struggles follow the same patterns and motivations observed in local, regional, national and global politics.
Today as we enter the XXI century the US, without any credible challengers in the international power struggle, has thoroughly absorbed the power grabbing notions to the point that they have become national goals. George W. Bush has endorsed them as guidelines for this country in his administration's National Defense Policy. In this policy the position outlined is that the US is the most powerful nation in the world and that it is reasonable that the US should maintain that superiority and deter by any means, even war if necessary, any nation that threatens that superiority. The American Dream, if the nation follows this path, is about to become a global nightmare.
Let me turn away from the global power struggles to personal ones. In my own personal history I can say that power has been of central importance. My childhood and adolescence was replete with power struggles between myself and my siblings, parents and teachers. In the early days of my adult career I was mighty proud of my accomplishments. I had written several successful books, I had a thriving psychotherapy and lecturing practice and a modest but secure financial position. It seemed to me-and others similarly fortunate-that with a little hard work anybody could achieve similar success.
What I didn't realize is that I was the privileged white, male child of educated parents in a land and time of plenty. I didn't realize that many other people worked twice as hard as I did, and didn't succeed at all. I didn't know that people, just as smart, just as hardworking as myself went through life unable to keep up with their basic needs and spent their "golden" years in abject poverty-if they lived that long. I happened to be on the top one tenth of one percent levels of privilege in a global pyramid which funneled its resources in my direction, and I was not aware of it.
I did not at the time see how much of what I had accomplished was based on resources which were mostly not my own. In other words; my power was not really mine. It had a large portion of its source elsewhere, and I had mistakenly assumed that it came solely from me. I wasn't as entitled to the feelings of mastery and power that I enjoyed as I believed. As I became more aware of the realities of my position on the "ladder of success," I had more and more difficulty when trying to assert my privilege because I saw that my power was based on the powerlessness of others.
I began to glimpse the realities of my fortunate dream as a result of the civil-rights movement of the late fifties. I had known, of course, that people of color were abused in this country, but I had not stopped to think about how their oppression benefited me, personally. The struggle of blacks did not affect me directly and I was sympathetic to its theoretical goals. Years later, in the late sixties, the full reality of my unearned personal privilege was served up to me by the women's movement. Women all around me began to stop cooking, doing dishes, taking care of children. Instead they started taking up space in conversations and questioning men's right to dominate every situation with their presence and opinions. It was clear now that if I was going to be serious about other people's rights I would actually have to give up some of my privileges.
To my surprise, I found that hard to take. My women friends report that I had to be forced to let go of my grip on things, finger by claw-like finger. I was lucky to have loving--as well as determined--teachers in this matter. Each concession of power on my part was rewarded and followed by a reward and a new, demanding lesson. I discovered that giving up privilege, though uncomfortable and frightening, can be exhilarating as well. I began to notice that being fair often felt better than getting my way and that the pleasure of sharing what I had made up for having to do with less. Eventually, I also saw that letting go of power caused people to treat me more lovingly and respectfully.
From then on it was a simple matter to realize that my privilege extended beyond blacks and women. I had an unfair advantage over young and old people, gay people, disabled people, fat people, single people, but above all over the vast numbers of poor people in this country and the world over. The illusion that I was entitled to that advantage dissolved, and this new awareness radically changed my view of myself and the world.
Let's face it: we of the affluent "First World" have been on a free ride for a long time; a free ride provided to us, for one thing, by hardworking people around the world. Just as importantly the free ride has been provided for us by the good Earth from which the First World has voraciously taken without any opposition and with only a few farseeing prophets making a fuss about it. Coming soon--actually here, right around the corner-- we will run out of easily appropriated natural resources. Cheap oil and therefore cheap energy are dwindling. The same is true of lumber, steel and many other commodities. The world's renewable resources are not renewing themselves, and our non-renewable resources are deteriorating in spite of conservationists efforts to limit further environmental destruction. On the other hand, the dispossessed are pressing their claims; women are demanding power and respect, racial minorities want what's coming to them, workers want a fair wage, decent housing, education and health care. More and more people want a a well deserved piece of the affluent dream. Still, the rich, here and everywhere, are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
In the end a few will be able to hold on to their increasingly unfair advantage; a few always do. The rest of us will have take a second job, recycle, conserve, car-pool, ride public transportation, walk, bicycle, work, sweat, wait in line, share, discuss, be outvoted, organize, vote again, demand our rights, and respect the rights of others. In short, we'll have to work harder and we'll possibly have to do with less.
The fear of course is that if we let go of our advantage everything we have will be lost to the greed of others. After all power is a zero sum game, we fear, and whatever anyone else gets will be taken from our plate. But we need not be frightened because power is not a zero sum game. That is to say that when we cooperate with others we don't just give up some of our power but we amplify theirs and ours as I will illustrate throughout this book. A friend of mine expresses it as follows: "Power is in everything, omnipresent, locked in every cell, every molecule and atom. It naturally radiates from all matter. We are powerless only because we curtail and disbelieve in ourselves and each other".
There is power and pleasure, hidden from our view by power greed. There is strength without abuse. There is power in cooperation with other people when we grow powerful together. There is power in love, passion, communication, intelligence and spirituality. None of these take power away from others and they can only develop in cooperation with others
I don't want to treat any person, living thing, or portion of the Earth as my exclusive property, to be used at will for my selfish purposes. I want the power of give and take when I put in as much as I take in every situation. I want the power of close loving friends and family. I want to be fair, considerate, and neighborly. I want the powerful feeling of being guided by my conscience in my actions. I want to grow old and crusty and be respected for my life and deeds. I want to be appreciated by my co-workers, neighbors and business competitors. I want to be fully alive to my powers and to the portion of the earth I inhabit. I want all of those powerful things without abusing power, and I want you to have the same. And not just you, but all of us who inhabit this planet.
The alternative offered in this book-The Other Side of Power-is based on the belief that it is possible to be powerful without abusing power; to be happy and alive and at the same time fair, considerate and cooperative. In this book I will offer practical ideas and guidelines to achieving that sort of power in the world.
BOOK ONE: CONTROL
POWER PLAYS IN EVERYDAY LIFE
(Back to home?)
This is a book about power. In our everyday lives power has to do with getting what we want or avoiding what we don't want. Let us look at Marcus and Johanna in their daily struggles to control what they get in a crucial aspect of life; love and sex.
Creeping home from work on the traffic-choked city streets, Marcus's thoughts wove around the cheerful talk show, female voice coming from the radio, and he realized that he was thinking about sex...again.
Sex with his wife--Johanna--had not been good lately. Increasingly, over the last year, she wasn't interested. As he thought about it, feelings of longing and desire were mixed with a sense of humiliation. He didn't like to beg for sex and he felt very angry.
Johanna seemed determined not to be sexual with him unless things were exactly right for her; all the dishes done, plenty of time to relax, nothing to spoil her mood. When they met, two years ago, sex was spontaneous: before dinner, after dinner, even sometimes during dinner, watching television, in the middle of the night, before running off to work. Maybe tonight....
As he walked into the house, he made a mental note to be careful. She stood by the stove, stirring something in a saucepan. He reminded himself to stay away from her magnetically attractive, sexy, hot-spots. "Hi honey." he said as stepped up to her from behind putting his hands on her shoulders and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Without stopping her work she turned to return his kiss.
He knew she liked to chat about things. And so did he. Sitting by the kitchen table he made small talk: What was going on with her mother? He told her about his day at work. How were things developing at her new job? He resisted an impulse to turn on the television and watch the evening news. As they spoke, Marcus relaxed and he was suddenly struck by Johanna's beauty. Forgetting himself he walked over to Johanna, holding her from behind and tenderly cupping her breasts with his hands. Almost immediately, he realized he had made a mistake. He felt her stiffen. "Damn! Why does she have to be so touchy?"
He withdrew. He would wait until after dinner. He reminded himself again to make no sexual moves.
After dinner, Marcus turns on the news on the TV and does the dishes while Johanna talks on the phone with a friend. Later, when everything finally calms down, while they are watching the TV on the couch, he turns to her and asks: "Do you want to have a drink?" She looks back at him, thinks for a second:
"No, thanks. Go ahead if you want."
A flash of anger. "That is it! I'm not going to try again. If there's gonna be sex tonight, it'll have to be her move." With one eye on the TV he reaches for the newspaper while he nurses his beer. A half hour later without saying anything, he gets up.
"Going to bed?" she asks sweetly.
"Yes. I'm tired. see you later . . ." he says.
Soon, just as he is falling asleep she joins him in bed. He pretends to be asleep while she caresses his face; seems to have softened. He notices that she is naked and hope rises in his heart. Maybe... He turns around sleepily pushing his leg between her thighs. Oops! Definitely the wrong move. Her legs clamp together and she turns belly-down on the bed. His is blinded with chaotic feelings as he sits bolt upright.
"What the hell is the matter with you?" he demands.
Alexis frightened "What do you mean?"
"You know damn well what I mean. Are you frigid?"
Now she is angry "No, I just don't want to have sex like this."
"Sex is all you want from me. I need more, and you just haven't got any of what I want."
"Jesus Christ, I'm busting my gut to do the right thing. What do you want anyway?"
"I want you to love me, not just to fuck me."
"Oh for God's sake, I give up. I don't know what I have to do to convince you that I love you. I want you, and I think about you all the time. What else do you need?" He turns from her, covering himself with their comforter.
"Good night, sleep well." he mutters. Fleeting thoughts of forcing himself on her cross his mind, but he dismisses them.
Johanna says nothing and turns off the light. They both fall asleep as a black cloud hovers over their bed.
As Johanna cut up some vegetables for dinner, she realized that Marcus would be soon coming home. She was tired and somewhat grumpy: things had not gone well at her new job, basically she did not like her boss.
She was looking forward to Marcus's arrival; but along side the pleasant expectation, she sensed an accompanying feeling of anxiety. She didn't pay close attention to it, but it was a subtle, unpleasant sensation which had been coming over her almost every time she thought about being with Marcus. Still, she eagerly looked forward to his cheerful smile and his mellow, booming voice. She heard the car drive up into their parking space, heard the car door slam: a few seconds later, Marcus was in the kitchen.
She greeted him feeling glad to see him but did not move to meet him. She hoped he would come up and kiss her, but as he approached, she felt that peculiar crawly feeling again, just slightly spoiling her gladness. When he approached her she felt his light touch and subtle kiss and was glad to return it. She saw with pleasure that he was going to sit and talk with her. She loved having him look at her while she was busy doing something. She was glad that she had decided to cook one of his favorite dishes. This would be a good dinner. They would talk and laugh and have a good time.
As she stirred the mushrooms into the sauce, he got up and walked toward her. She had been hoping that he would come closer and touch her. Suddenly she froze; his anticipated embrace had become a rude grab for her breasts. That subtle anxiety which had plagued her became full panic. "Oh, my God, here we go again," she thought. Her mind and body went blank as she concentrated on the sauce.
The next thing she knew, Marcus was gone. She could hear him tinkering around in the living room. She was definitely scared and worried. Something terrible was happening to her feelings for Marcus. It wasn't that she didn't love him; she just didn't seem to want sex with him, and he grew more insistent every day. She didn't like his approach; it was crude, rude, and lacked any romance. It was often a turn-off and sometimes it made her skin crawl. He was no longer willing to just sit, talk, watch TV, in a light, loving embrace. All he wanted was sex, sex, sex. Whenever she tried to get him to just be with her, he either ran out of the room, turned on the TV, or made a pass. She realized that the blame could not be placed entirely on him. Maybe things could be smoothed out. She was going to try hard to respond to his wish to have sex.
During dinner and after, Marcus seemed remote. Johanna tried to make friendly conversation and he responded, but there was no warmth in his voice. Was he angry, or had he just lost interest in being sexy? Maybe she was making a big deal out of this. Maybe he was OK. She decided not to worry, and relax. Sitting next to him on the couch, she felt a faint stirring of sexual interest. She really did enjoy Marcus, and remembered how passionately they had made love in the past. In the middle of one of her reveries, Marcus looked up significantly,
"Do you want to have a drink?"
His look took her by surprise. He was up to something, and she didn't like it. She thought for a second and resented the implicit expectation in his question.
"Let's get drunk and screw," she thought "how typical." Without thinking further, she declined his offer.
She noticed his hurt look, became unsure of her decision. If he offered again she'd accept. But Marcus seemed to completely withdraw now. He got a beer from the refrigerator and drank it down without offering her any, and got up abruptly. She feigned surprise.
"Going to bed?"
"Yes." he said. "I'm tired. See you later..."
As he went off to the bedroom, she heard his words resonating in her ears. Was that a sarcastic, sad, bitter comment, or was it a hopeful invitation? She decided, not to make a big thing out of what seemed to her to be an unnecessarily snide comment.
Having watched the end of the program, Johanna turned off the TV and the lights, and tiptoed to the bedroom. Maybe Marcus was still awake. Maybe they would talk sweetly for a while. She looked at Marcus in bed. He seemed to be asleep.
"Good," she thought. "We can cuddle all night, and I'll feel loving and physically close to him. Then we can have sex tomorrow morning before he goes to work, like we used to."
She took off her clothes, decided not to wear a nightgown. As she slid under the covers next to him, he turned around unexpectedly. Johanna was startled because she had thought he was asleep, and her knees instinctively clamped together as he thrust his leg between hers.
Before she recovered from her confusion, he sits up. His face twists with rage as he yells something at her which she answers without thinking. She feels panicky. Then she grows cold and calculating as she answers his accusations automatically, defensively; all resolve to be loving gone, replaced by anger and hurt.
When Marcus's finally hides under the covers, she is glad to go to sleep. She feels sorry for the both of them. "Maybe I should go see a sex therapist," she thinks. Throughout the night they drift slowly toward each other, touching here and there, first lightly, and then, eventually, holding each other closely. In her dreams she makes love to a faceless man feeling both exhilarated and guilty.
This example specifically illustrates a typical power struggle between two people. It's not that Johanna and Marcus don't love each other any more. They do, and they are still sexually attracted to each other as well. But something has gone wrong. The love that once flowed easily and joyously between them has been interrupted. Both of them are puzzled, hurt, angry. Both feel the other is mostly to blame. Before the trouble began, they were in love. Johanna had never been so sexually turned on; Marcus had never been so tender and thoughtful. Now they are locked in a heart wrenching struggle over sex and love.
At first the problem went unnoticed amidst the busy days and tired nights. But little by little, over the last year, a pattern emerged of which neither was clearly aware. The free and loving exchange between them began to include occasional controlling transactions. One evening as they lay in bed, Marcus ignored Johanna's lack of interest and insisted in having intercourse with her. She didn't really resist, although she made sure not to respond in a big way. The next time they were in bed together, she rolled away from him in a tight impenetrable ball. Later in the week, Johanna had planned a quiet Sunday morning in bed. She visualized how they would lie around and just talk; how he would get up and make coffee and prepare some English muffins and jam for both of them. But before she could even wake up he was I out of bed, working in the garden, and soon she got up, too.
Nights later, while Johanna was asleep, Marcus caressed and kissed her and she became aroused. Before she knew it, they were having intercourse. She half-enjoyed it and half-resented it. But the next time he fondled her in the middle of the night, she woke up, turned over on her stomach, and went back to sleep.
Over the months, Marcus's attempts to manipulate Johanna into sex escalated, and her maneuvers to resist escalated right along. Johanna's attempts at creating intimate, nonsexual times were equally unsuccessful.
I am a transactional analyst. Power in relationships is expressed through social transactions which can be analyzed and understood. Let us apply a microscope to Marcus and Johanna's controlling interactions in the evening described earlier. I will describe and name the different power plays by Marcus.
First he hides his desires for sex as he comes into the house; this is basically a lie. He assumes that if she knew what he wanted, she would turn him down. So he controls what he does and says in order to control her. Even though he would rather watch television, he engages in a conversation with her, which is an attempt to give her what she wants--not particularly out of affection, but with the anticipation that this will get him what he wants. Again he is trying to control her. The power play is called "Promise her anything, but..." Later, he forgets his resolve and acts out of impulse when he fondles her breasts. This not a power play but a honest move. However when he discovers that the impulse turns Johanna off, he tries another tactic. He withdraws completely, hoping thereby to create an interest on her part, spurred by his absence (Sulking) He carries this tactic through dinner.
Next, he hits on a new idea. "Maybe if she got high, she'd loosen up." She catches on and refuses his offer. Now he returns to sulking; that'll make her feel guilty. When she comes to bed, he plans to pretend to be asleep: this will prove to her that he doesn't give a damn (Who me? I don't care). Maybe that'll work. But he dozes off and when she comes to bed and seems to be responding with some warmth, he again forgets himself and again grabs at her. Seeing that he has failed once more, he now tries a cruder approach. He yells at her and accuses her of being frigid. (Insults) He tries to arouse her guilt. He attempts to frighten her into submission; all of these maneuvers are intimidation power plays. Eventually, he withdraws into another sulk as he fantasizes the ultimate sexual power play(Rape).
As we analyze the feelings and experiences that Johanna goes through, matters look different. She has developed a low-key, almost instinctive fear of his sexual advances. A series of similar evenings have created an expectation of trouble. She becomes anxious anytime he makes an approach. As a consequence, his moves--whether they are controlling and manipulating, or direct and honest--meet with the identical reaction, a tightening, a withdrawal, a blocking of his every move, passive resistance. She hesitates to initiate any loving behavior for fear that it will become sexual. She waits for him to make his move so she can reject what she does not want. She is now intent on remaining in control, on not being manipulated; she knows of no other way of getting what she wants, and neither does he. They are locked in a struggle for power and know of no way out of their embattled positions. He finds himself trying to manipulate in order to get what he wants, and she finds herself almost automatically refusing to go along. His stance is aggressive or one up, her stance is defensive or one-down. Both of them get nothing.
In the past, Marcus's maneuvers have succeeded. He has managed to distract Johanna, or to create a need for him, or to cause her to submit out of guilt or fear. But these tactics aren't working any more. They seldom do, after a while. People don't like to be controlled, and manipulation eventually arouses a strong will to resist. Struggle ensues, energy is wasted, powerlessness results. Marcus's and Johanna's situation is just one example of people power-playing each other.
Marcus wants sex. Johanna doesn't, that's what he sees. He may go about getting it in a direct and crude manner by just simply grabbing for it, or he may also, either separately or at the same time, be much more subtle about it. We saw him trying to sell Johanna on sex by setting the scene for hours. We saw him hide his feelings, try to arouse guilt, fake interest, withdraw, try to get her high, and we saw him sulk. When Marcus's subtle approach doesn't work, he is liable to consider a cruder one as in the case of his rape fantasy, before they fell asleep, or when he clenched his fists as he yelled at her.
If you have a loaf of bread which I want, I can simply grab it from you and eat it while I pin you to the ground. That's the crude approach. I also can get that loaf of bread through other means. I can convince you that it is mine, that I have more right to it than you. I can impress you with how hungry I am, so that you'll give it up out of guilt or shame. I can scare you out of it by speaking ominously of what might happen if you don't share it with me. I can smilingly kid you out of it. The same maneuvers can apply to sex.
In our everyday lives, we are controlled primarily through subtle means. We are seldom clearly aware of how these methods accomplish their purpose even if we use them on others ourselves. Force is not the immediate basis for their success. All of the maneuvers used by Marcus and Johanna, subtle or crude, psychological or physical, offensive or defensive, fall under the definition of power plays and are a major focus of this book. Power plays are the tools of Control and competition. When they are introduced into a loving, cooperative relationship they affect it profoundly.
Let us look into another situation where power plays are used habitually; the workplace.
Meanwhile, Back at the Office
It's 4:00, one hour before quitting time. You've worked hard all day; you've had two 15-minute coffee breaks and a thirty-minute lunch. As you expectantly look forward to the end of the workday, your boss comes into your work station, lays a folder on your desk, looks at you with a smile, and says,
"These have to be done before tomorrow morning. OK?"
You hesitate, but answer automatically. "OK."
"Thanks," she says as she briskly turns around and leaves.
You pick up the folder and look at what's in it. It looks like an hour and a half's worth of work. You know you won't be able to finish it by 5:00. That means you’ll have to stay longer, miss the early traffic, and be stuck in the heavy rush hour. You're low on gas and risk running out. You'll have to stop in the heavy traffic and buy some gas. You're confused, and angry. Yet, she asked if it was OK and you agreed: "OK:" she said, and you answered, "OK." How can you now turn around and make a fuss? Your mind is flooded with emotions and you can't think. All you know is that an hour and a half of work is to be done before tomorrow morning. You say to yourself, "Well, the faster you get into it the faster you'll get finished. There's no point in wasting any time. You'll just have to stay longer if you do."
You have been power-played. Your boss has managed to get you to do something that you didn't want to do, something that she has no right to expect of you. And she has done it without laying a hand on you and with a smile, to boot. She relied on your obedience, unwillingness to challenge her, and subservience, to get you to do something which she knew perfectly well was unreasonable.
In an ideal work situation, had you been quick-witted, you might have said, "Wait, I'm not sure it's OK. Let me look at it." And, after having looked at it, you might have argued, "Why do you bring me this so late? Why does it have to be done by tomorrow morning? Can't you get someone else to help?" And perhaps, "I don't have to work after five o'clock. If it's so important, you should have given it to me earlier. Why don't you hire some temporary help? I need to be paid time-and-a-half for this." Or even, "Why don't you do it yourself?"
Clearly, that type of behavior would be seen as insubordinate, rebellious, uncooperative; and most people aren't capable of being that aggressive anyway. Besides, if your job was one which could be easily filled by someone else, your boss might start thinking of firing you and replacing you with someone who's more "cooperative." The choice is not simple. What are you to do?
The confusion we feel in such situations is sensible. We want to be cooperative, good workers, reasonable. But we are often asked to be selfless by people who have only themselves in mind and who would not hesitate to control us to their advantage. The only way to decide wisely and responsibly is to understand the situation better, by learning about power: how it is abused through crude and subtle power plays, and how it is used on the other hand, cooperatively and humanely while avoiding being power played. Only then can we know if what we are doing is out of obedience and submission or out of free choice and the wish to be cooperative.
People have the right to work in an atmosphere where power plays like forced overtime aren't used and where workers and employees alike ask for what they want and negotiate reasonably and fairy. Workers need the assurance that their willingness to work hard will not he abused or taken for granted and bosses need to know that workers will be ready to work when needed and do it in the most productive way possible. Working situations like that are possible. In such a work setting, the boss would approach you very differently. She might come into your work station and wait politely until you finished what you are doing and looked up. At this point, she might sit down and say, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I would like to ask whether you can do some extra work today before you leave. It’ll take about an hour and a half."
If you showed unhappiness with the request, she might say. "This is really important-can we make a deal? Perhaps you want to take some time off tomorrow morning." Or, "Would you do it just once, as a favor? I'll return the favor some other time." This cooperative request, free or power plays might succeed in causing you to decide to do the work with a smile. If it did not, then you and your boss would discuss a creative solution to the problem-such as getting getting someone else, postponing the work or taking it home. In the end, you and she would have a better working relationship based on mutual respect. This sort of work place based on mutual respect and cooperation has been proven to be far more productive and most modern work places are eager to find ways of establishing such an environment. Only a thorough understanding of power abuse and the other side of power--cooperation--can provide the method to bring it about.
These two approaches-the Control, power-play competitive mode-and the Other Side of Power-the loving, give-and-take, cooperative mode-describe the major issue in this book.
Let us begin by examining why we accept other people's control over us.
OBEDIENCE: WHY WE ACCEPT CONTROL BY OTHERS
Subtle power plays depend on our obedience, which is often mistaken for cooperation. Cooperation very often means going along, not arguing, and doing as others, who know better, tell us. During the Nixon presidency, when this book was first written President Nixon was very irritated with the press, the students and the American public, who did not "cooperate" with his plans. The Vietnamese didn't cooperate with the "Vietnamization," of Vietnam much to the annoyance of the U.S. military.
The American colonists refused to pay their taxes and to "cooperate" with England. For many years the United States people fought and refused to cooperate with the nuclear energy program and today they are fighting against economic globalization, unprovoked war and government control. Later I will explain in detail how cooperation and obedience differ from each other. For now, let me give an example that illustrates how we are often talked into cooperation which is merely obedience.
You are sitting on a park bench, on a cool but sunny spring day, enjoying the early-morning sun. Your eyes are closed, and you feel the warm sunlight all over your body. You are happy and content as your mind drifts in a pleasant day-dream. Suddenly a shadow is cast over you. You feel a chill, open your eyes, and see somebody standing between you and the sun. He is dressed in an elegant but casual suit and tie, good-looking, relaxed, graying at the temples. You smile and say, "Hi."
"Hi," he replies, but he doesn't move.
His face is against the sun, so you can't quite see his features. "He probably doesn't realize that he is obscuring the sun's warmth," you think to yourself.
"Excuse me, but you're standing in my light."
He answers, "I know."
You are puzzled. You take a closer look. He looks kindly but serious and does not seem to be challenging you. You move over, back into the sunlight. Now you can see his face; he is eyeing you with detached interest. He shifts his position and blocks your light again. Your confusion grows.
You ask yourself, "Why is he doing this?" You assume that he has a good reason and that you are probably missing the point of his behavior. You don't want to offend this nice looking man. You don't want any problems. He looks friendly enough, but you are a little scared. There must be some mistake. You are probably overreacting. After all, he is only standing in your light. You close your eyes again, but you are getting annoyed.
After a few seconds, trying to sound calm, you ask, "Why are you standing in my light?" He answers earnestly, "I'm glad you asked that question. It's very important that I do this. As a matter of fact, you must excuse me, but I have to do one other thing." He moves toward you and steps on your toe with his heel. You are shocked; undoubtedly he has made a mistake. He surely can't be intentionally stepping on your toe.
Suppressing a groan of pain, you cry, "You're standing on my toe!"
He answers, "Yes, I know."
"Why?" you plead again, trying not to be visibly upset.
Very earnestly, he says, "This may be difficult for you to believe, but the reason that I'm standing on your toe is too complicated for you to understand. All I can tell you is that it's essential to the security and economic health of our country. If we can't do this, the country will be plunged into terrorist chaos. And I would really appreciate if you went along without any protest. Everyone else is and we can't have you interfere with our efforts to protect our national interests."
The man is both earnest and ominous. You think of yourself as a good citizen. Still, you are not very experienced: you haven't really been able to understand the ins and outs of politics. In fact, you feel downright stupid about these matters. You repress a desire to ask him some questions for fear of exposing your ignorance. This man looks educated. He is obviously a winner. judging from his manner and dress-probably a successful businessman or college professor. "If you hadn't quit college you might not be in this situation," you think. "You always have been lazy. Look at yourself-loafing on a park bench .... It doesn't hurt all that much to go along with him and do your part. With a simple effort you could easily tolerate the situation." The man senses your acquiescence and seems pleased, "You are a fine person: A credit to your parents. Not a trouble maker. Your children will be proud of you."
You are getting used to the pain. You look around and you see many people who are in the same situation you are. Wherever you look men in suits are stepping on people's toes. Everyone's smiling or trying to smile. It really isn't so bad. You are beginning to feel better, knowing that you are doing the right thing, not creating a fuss: being appreciated by this man and knowing that you are helping with your civic-minded willingness to cooperate.
Off in the distance, you see a few people who seem to be protesting. They've pushed the kindly gentlemen off their feet and they are running down the street yelling, "Off our toes!" There are even young boys and girls amongst the protesters. How can they corrupt children like this? Why are they uncooperative? How dare they endanger the security and future of our country? You are quite relieved when you see a line of policemen move in, stop the demonstration, and arrest those who don't peacefully disperse. Justice has been done.
The stranger has moved aside no longer blocking the sun. You settle back in your seat, close your eyes and concentrate on the warmth of the sun and the songs of the birds. You can hardly feel the pain under the stranger's foot. You drift into sleep and you dream of running through a meadow with wings on your feet. You feel free-you can fly. With a start you wake up; you realize that it was all a dream. You are back on the park bench, no one is standing on your foot; your new shoes are just too tight.
This allegory attempts to clarify the way in which we tend to accept and justify the subtle power plays which are perpetrated on us. We don’t challenge the unpleasant things done by people who have power. Rarely do we ask for proof of the need for the things that we tolerate. When we see others conform and go along, we assume that our objections are not justified. We forget our feelings and our fears. We believe obvious lies. We don't approve of people who protest. In short, we become obedient. When in doubt, we doubt ourselves. If we don't understand something, we assume we are stupid. If we don't want to do something, we assume we are lazy. If we are too weary to challenge people who step on us, we assume we are weak.
It takes more energy and skill than most of us have to challenge, ask questions, question authority, refuse to go along, openly criticize what everyone around is doing and defend our rights. We don't want to risk what we have by angering powerful people. To be disruptive and stubborn is difficult and frightening. Instead, we go along quietly and we "cooperate," which, in this case, really means that we obey.
The first step in becoming powerful without using power plays to control others is to learn to be disobedient. You are a free human being, and that freedom is powerful if you will make use of it. Yet you spend much of your life being manipulated and pushed around by others. Refusing to be controlled against your will and judgment frees your own powers for whatever you may decide is good for you.
Obedience is a quality which many of us are taught; by our parents by the schools, and by all the institutions of our childhood. We learn to do what others tell us to do without questioning it because we are, after all, only children. Obedience involves not asking obvious questions, not saying what we want, not showing anger or sadness or some other feeling when we feel it, not demanding or defending our rights, smiling when we are unhappy, and, generally, just going along and not making waves.
Stanley Milgram wrote Obedience to Authority, the now famous study which exposes the serious problem of obedience. In this experiment, ordinary people like you and me were hired to participate in a "learning" experiment. In the experiment, the learner was to memorize some words. You, the teacher, were to shock the learner if the learner made a mistake. Every time the learner made a mistake, you were instructed to push the next highest switch to increase the shock by 15 volts. The lowest shock was 15 volts. and the highest 450 volts. As the shock switches increased in voltage, they were labeled: "Intense shock (255 volts)," "Extreme intensity shock (311 volts)." "Danger: severe shock (375 volts)." and "xxx (450 volts)."
The learner was actually an actor (unbeknownst to you, the teacher) and at the higher levels of "shock" was instructed to scream and protest loudly.
At 300 volts: Agonized scream. "I absolutely refuse to answer any more. Get me out of here." "You can't hold me here. Get me out. Get me out of here!"
330 volts:. Intense and prolonged. agonized scream. "Let me out of here. Let me out of here. My heart is bothering me. Let me out, I tell you." (Hysterically). "Let me out of here. Let me out of here! You have no right to hold me here. Let me out! Let me out! Let me out of here! Let me out! Let me out!"
The only person who was not an actor in this experiment was the teacher, the real subject in the experiment. As the learner made mistake after mistake and the "teacher" hesitated to increase the shock, the experimenter (also again, an actor), dressed in a lab coat, would say, "Please continue ..." If the "teacher" was still hesitant he would add "The experiment requires that you continue .... It is absolutely essential that you continue .... You have no other choice-you must go on."
Now you probably would guess that you and most people would refuse to shock another person under these conditions. Well, guess again. About one of three of the very average people who participated in the experiment "shocked" the learner all the way to 450 volts-even the learner seemed unconscious! And when they did not actually administered the "shocks," but just administered the word test while another person did the electrocuting, nine out of ten went along all the way to the top of the scale.
The effectiveness to produce obedience of the combination of gradual, subtle introduction of abuse combined with lack of choice, backed by violence was amply demonstrated in Nazi Germany, where a whole country of civilized people went along-cheerfully, it seems-with the Holocaust. What would you have done in Berlin in 1939. Would you have rebelled or would you have obeyed? What are you doing today? To what extent are you going along or disobeying?
Obedience is a quality which we are told is admirable in children. Many of us would be embarrassed and insulted if someone said that a child of ours is disobedient. We are so used to thinking of obedience as a virtue that the notion of encouraging disobedience might seem wrong, even dangerous. But civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition and has been a part of every worthwhile movement in our history.
Oppression is often supported by laws and traditions. Wanting to change those situations requires the will to disobey. Ending the Vietnam War, stopping nuclear power, the ousting of McCarthy and Nixon, the civil-rights movement, the establishment of trade unions, and, of course, the US revolution, were all based on civil disobedience. Hopefully, a disobedient citizenry will put an end to the current Bush doctrine of world domination.
"But, what if disobedience were a trait of the whole population? Wouldn't that bring chaos and makes us vulnerable to terrorists? What about law and order?"
Disobedience is not necessarily a rebellious, violent trait, though it can be that-and at times needs to be that. I am speaking mostly of disobedience that comes from self-respect and an ironclad commitment to be lovingly critical of oneself and others, to not go along with what we don't agree with and to ask, "Why?" over and over again until we are satisfied.
Obedience and the Critical Parent
Why are some people strongly inclined to obey authority and some aren't? Is it a matter of willpower? Are some people born weak and others strong? Do we learn strength or weakness from our parents? What causes that important difference in people's character which determines whether they will accept domination or challenge it?
To answer this question, it is useful to have a rudimentary knowledge of Transactional Analysis. As you probably know, in Transactional Analysis, we see people’s behavior as being divided into three very different ways of being which are called “ego states": the Parent, the Adult and the Child. These ego states are three different ways in which any one normal person can behave.
The Parent ego state tells people what's right or wrong and what to do. The Parent can be nurturing, taking care of people and trying to protect them against harm, or it can be critical and nasty, controlling them with power plays and abuse.
The Adult thinks and acts rationally, makes the best possible decisions without emotion and according to the rules of logic.
The Child is the spontaneous and emotional, childlike aspect of the person.
The Parent ego state can appear in two forms; the Nurturing Parent or the Critical Parent. The Child is also manifested in two forms. The Adapted Child, under the influence of the Critical Parent or the Natural Child supported and encouraged by the Nurturing Parent.
The Critical Parent has as its major function to control people. It is the source of the power plays and controlling abuses of power that we are subjected to. This type of behavior is innate in most of us and it is encouraged or discouraged by people around us, especially parents and teachers. Both Parents; the Nurturing and the Critical, are prejudiced. The Critical Parent is prejudiced against the Child, the Nurturing Parent is prejudiced in its favor. When acting in their Critical Parent ego state people use their power to control others. On the other hand, when acting in their Nurturing Parent people use their power to be supportive and protective.
The Critical Parent is the controlling ego state in our personality; but it doesn't just control others, it also controls us in a similar way. Autonomy, disobedience, and ultimately freedom, depend on not being subject to the influence of the Critical Parent-externally or internally. It means that we do not use our Critical Parent--our faculty to control--against ourselves or let others use it against us. Being autonomous means that there is no strong internal tendency to go along, no automatic, reflex, submissive response. Being autonomous also frees us from the tendency to control others as a way to satisfy our needs or desires.
How the Critical Parent Operates
The Critical Parent is a
coherent, learned set of critical and controlling points of view. It is an
ubiquitous problem in people’s lives and it has been called by a variety of
names: harsh superego, catastrophic expectations, negativity, low self-esteem,
the Pig Parent, The Critical Parent, the Enemy, cognitive traps, the shadow or
just plain “stinking thinking.” The Critical Parent is a reality in
everyone's life. However, the extent to which the Critical Parent operates
varies greatly from person to person.
There are two ways in which
the Critical Parent ego state operates. Externally, when we apply it to others,
it manifests itself in the form of power plays as when we pressure people
to follow our wishes. Internally, it manifests itself as "voices in
When it speaks to us “inside our heads” the Critical Parent inhibits us from doing what we would otherwise do with threats of harm if we disobey.
The basic message of the Critical Parent is: "You are not OK" specifically:
You are bad (sinful, lazy, wicked, etc.)
You are ugly ( ugly face, ugly body, etc.)
You are crazy (mentally, emotionally, irrational, out of control, etc.)
You are stupid ( retarded, can’t think straight, confused, etc.)
You are doomed (ill, hopeless, self destructive, etc.)
You will not be loved
There are certain selfish
behaviors which are considered immoral, such as lying, theft or violence.
We avoid these behaviors out of a sense of ethical values. On the other hand
there are certain foolish things which we don't do because they are
ineffective or self-defeating, such as drinking and driving, having
unprotected sex, overeating or walking in the cold without clothes on.
However there are also a number
of things, which are neither selfish nor foolish, which we don't do because
our Critical Parent opposes them. We become ashamed, afraid, or unwilling to
stick our necks out. The Critical Parent justifies its inhibiting commands
to us on the basis of morality or rationality. But the fact is that the
Critical Parent's rules have to do with respect for established authority. The
threat that it uses to keep us in line is that if we don’t obey we will be
excluded from the tribe, left to die alone and unloved. This is a very basics
and primitive threat that strikes fear in most people’s heart
The Critical Parent keeps
us in line and obedient to authority by making us feel not-OK so that
anything we believe or anything we feel is questionable unless it meets
with the approval of those who have power over us.
In some people's awareness,
the Critical Parent is insistent, nagging voice telling them how they are
not OK. The Critical Parent can be a rational-sounding, sedate, moderate voice
which undermines every major decision we make. It can be like a paternal,
authoritarian, moralistic voice which threatens us with hellfire and
Most of us are aware of voices in our heads which tell us what is wrong with us and how what we're doing is wrong. If people are lying to us and we want to question their statements, the Critical Parent will tell us that we have no right to ask such arrogant and presumptuous questions. If somebody is trying to intimidate us, the Critical Parent will say that we are weak, we don't have the strength to resist, that no matter what we we do, we will fail. If somebody is trying to take away what is ours, then the Critical Parent will tell us we don't deserve it in the first place, that we didn't work hard enough to earn it, and that it wasn't going to last anyway. If somebody is overpowering us with fast talk and phony arguments, the Critical Parent tells us that we are ignorant, uneducated, haven't read enough, and simply don't know enough to be able to defend ourselves.
Not everyone is equally
conscious of what the Critical Parent is actually saying. For some of us,
the Critical Parent's words are crystal clear like a tape recording inside of
our minds. Others sense the Critical Parent as an ominous feeling, a fear of death,
which beckons them to submit, to give up, relinquish power, play dead. The
Critical Parent can haunt us in the form of physical aches and pains,
nightmares or white-hot flashes of dread. In any case, whether through
clear-cut verbal messages or vague feelings of dread and despair, the
Critical Parent saps our power to resist and makes us obedient to the
abuses of others.
No matter what form the Critical Parent takes, how long it has dominated us or how hopelessly powerful it seems, we can challenge it. The Critical Parent continues to operate only because we are willing to countenance it and to accept it as a valid part of our world. In order to defeat it, we need to recognize that it is arbitrary and that it has been handed down to us by others, has been internalized, and is now being listened to. As long as it is listened to, believed, and followed, then the Critical Parent has power. It is therefore important to be aware of the operation of the Critical Parent in ourselves and others and to actively work against it. How strong our Critical Parent is has a lot to do with whether we feel powerful or powerless in our everyday life. Let us now look at that subjective feeling of power.
(Back to home?)
THE SUBJECTIVE FEELING OF POWER
Power is a matter of great interest and concern to people: how to get it what to do with it, what it looks like, how it operates. People admire and fear, want and reject power.
Power can be seen in two ways. Externally it is measured by how many women, men, employees or servants we control, how much land, how large a wardrobe, how much money, how many cars, houses, boats, or airplanes we own or how physically strong and healthy we are. These are the things which are associated with power. They are the easily noticeable attributes which fill the pages of magazines and are clearly and easily portrayed in movies and on TV.
But there is another way of looking at power and it has to do with how we feel. This feeling of power is subjective; you have experienced it when waking up on a beautiful morning feeling that everything was going your way, and that life was smiling on you. You had less than $100 in the bank, but you were feeling like a million dollars. You weren't the arm-wrestling champion of your neighborhood but somehow, for some reason you felt strong and powerful. This type of power is not as easily visible to the naked eye as is a brand-new Mercedes in the driveway but it is very real nonetheless.
That internal, subjective feeling of power is not always connected with the quantity of money, cars, real estate, connections, employees, or slaves a person has. The subjective feeling of power, the feeling of being beautiful, smart, healthy, and good, the feeling of being a winner has everything to do with how much people feel that they are personally able to direct the events in their lives. A wealthy man who cannot control his drinking, so that every evening he ends up in a drunken stupor feels powerless, regardless of his money. The fabulously successful star who has millions of people at her feet but cannot obtain the love of one other person feels powerless. The mighty boxing heavyweight champion of the world who cannot discipline himself to train to hold on to his championship can feel utterly impotent.
I don't want to give the impression that I believe that money has nothing to do with how powerful we feel. It most assuredly does. Rich people tend to be healthier, live longer, have more fun than poor people, and it would be silly to claim otherwise. One of the myths which seem to soothe the powerless of the world is that the rich and the powerful don't live their lives as fully as the poor. Poor people often think that the rich are sexless, overworked, worried, and unhealthy. This is not only not true, but it is also very beneficial to the rich and powerful that the poor believe it: it causes the powerless to forgive the rich their excesses and accept their abuses of power.
A person's internal feelings of power or powerlessness and a person's easily visible external power are not necessarily the same. One can exist without the other. Feelings of power come from expansion, improvement, forward progress. If a person's annual income goes up by a reasonable amount every year, he feels powerful. If, at the same time, inflation goes up by even more every year, he may feel powerless. How much we get of what we want is a crucial aspect of how powerful we feel. A woman who wants to be a millionaire by age thirty could feel defeated at age twenty nine because she's accumulated only half a million dollars. Some people feel powerful, with only an occasional powerless feeling and some people feel essentially powerless and have only occasional moments of feeling powerful, regardless of the objective power that they possess.
These curious facts about power are known to us, but we don't know exactly what to do about them. Most of us assume that the path to feelings of power is, in fact, money, possessions, real estate, employees, status and as we attain those we invariably experience, sometimes only briefly, those feelings of power that we seek. But because the experience of power depends on growth, expansion, and forward movement, finding our power merely through the pursuit of material things is likely to frustrate most of us. Why? Because most of us cannot all have the ever expanding wealth and possessions which would keep us feeling powerful. On the other hand, when our feelings of power depend on non material things such as love, wisdom, passion or the capacity to communicate, our need for continuous expansion and growth can be satisfied because these things are limitlessly available. We can always find another person to love or love one person more, there is always something to learn about, read about or explore. We can always expand our self and our abilities. There is always another issue to get involved in, succeed in communicating about or be passionately involved in. All of these contribute to our feelings of power.
The feeling of powerlessness comes from not being able to get the job we want or earn the salary we need to live on or to be secure in our old age. We feel powerless when we are not able to control our behavior, to stop smoking or drinking, to wake up or go to sleep, to control our temper, or our loving feelings, or to keep our mind on a subject. We feel powerless when we can't stop being terrified, hopeless, or suicidal, when we can't defend ourselves against unfair treatment or persecution, or when we can't stop our headaches and backaches, or get over our colds and illnesses. All of these are the common everyday experiences of powerlessness, which the majority of people suffer to some extent. People who are able to successfully do all of the above would clearly be happy and would undoubtedly feel powerful regardless of how rich or influential they were otherwise.
It's 6:30 in the morning. The alarm goes off. Boris is jolted out of a deep, inert sleep, his heart beating wildly, as he stares at the clock in disbelief. It seems only minutes ago that he finally decided to take a sleeping pill. He curses thickly as he tries to relax so as to face the day. His body feels leaden and he is worried that, like yesterday and every working day as far back as he can remember, he will be sleepy all day and that later, after he gets away from his job and has a couple of drinks, he will, once again, be wide awake until past midnight. Jill is already up fixing coffee in the kitchen. He is irritated that she can get up so easily and senses that she is avoiding him: they have been fighting for the last month and they never seem to find a time or place to make up. They have been married seven years and their relationship is deteriorating; he is deeply miserable about it.
As Boris drifts into a dream, he is reawakened by the snooze alarm. "Have to get up. Late to work again. Not again. Not today." He sits on the edge of the bed and realizes that his head aches and his back is stiff. "Take an aspirin? Better not--coffee will do the trick."
Later, as he sips his black coffee, Boris stares dumbly at some sweet rolls on the table. He's definitely overweight now, and it seems that his feeble efforts at dieting and jogging in order to regain his youthful figure are not working. "Oh, what the hell!" He reaches for a doughnut: at least this way he won't have that sour bellyache that coffee alone gives him for the rest of the morning. After a perfunctory kiss, he runs down the stairs to catch the bus: he'll have to hurry but he's still on time. As he hurries down the street, he slips and almost falls on the wet sidewalk. Half a block down the street he remembers to check his pockets. "God damn, forgot again!" He turns around, speeds back up the stairs. frantically crashes through the door. "I forgot to get change for the bus." Jill, looking disgusted, hands him the petty-cash jar. He quickly grabs some coins and runs out the door again. He's definitely late now, and just as he turns the corner he hears the hissing of the bus door closing and the loud whine of the diesel engine as it creeps away. "Again it's happened again! Why can't I be on time?"
Ten minutes to the next bus; he's definitely going to be late to work. He pulls out a cigarette; he had planned not to smoke until at least his first coffee break but this situation is just too much to bear. He sits down on the bench to regain his breath. "I'd better call up Anton at work and ask him to cover the first fifteen minutes for me." He reaches into his pocket for some coins and realizes that if he spends the money for a phone call he will again be short of change for bus fare. The phone booth is about half a block away from the bus stop: on the way to the booth, he buys a daily paper, which he doesn't really want but it's the only way to get change. When he gets to the booth somebody is making a call. Another wave of frustration washes over him. Is this woman going to let him make his phone call? She looks at him from the corner of her eye and pretends not to see him as she continues her conversation.
He places himself in her line of sight
shifting from foot to foot. His
anger mounts as she calmly ignores his presence. He can barely
see the bus stop from where he stands, and he's now
considering skipping the phone call to make sure not to miss the bus
a second time. After a few nervous minutes, the conversation in the booth is over and the phone is free. He rushes in, puts the
money in the slot, but can't remember Anton's extension at work. Is it 5251 or
5152? He fumbles through his pocket for his wallet. He seems to remember
that he wrote the number down on a slip of paper. He finds his wallet and the
slip, puts the wallet on the shelf, and dials the number.
Anton is right there, answers the phone, and after a short exchange agrees to
cover for Boris. Sighing with relief, Boris looks and sees the bus coming at a
quickly walks to the stop and is off to work. At work, he's glad to sink into
his chair and get to work. No one seems to have noticed that he was late and at
last he can relax. Suddenly a flash of panic strikes him. His hand darts to his
pocket. "My wallet-I forgot my fucking wallet in the phone booth." He
stands up, furiously patting all of his pockets. He's definitely forgotten his
wallet. No doubt about it. A cramp grips his stomach; he drops into his chair in
despair. He escapes into the men's room. As he sits on the stool, having the
third cigarette of the day, he remembers that he has been constipated now for
two weeks, after a two week bout with the runs. He is utterly despondent; he
feels powerless; he's considering suicide. He hates his work, his wife ignores
him, he's sick, he's overweight, he smokes and drinks too much, he can't keep up
with his debts, and he feels utterly without control over anything in his life.
He puts his face in his hands. He wants to cry, but the tears won't come.
Feeling utterly powerless he
stifles a groan.
On the same day, across town, Alex had been awake and reading for about half an hour when he realizes that he had better get out of bed. He especially enjoys the mornings when he wakes up early and reads or listens to the radio for a few minutes before getting up to go to work. He is wide awake now and thinking ahead with pleasure to this evening, when Maria will be back from her trip to her relatives. Alex gets out of bed, stretches, bends, looks at himself in the mirror. "I'll have to take off a few pounds around the waist." He goes to the bathroom, showers, shaves and brushes his teeth while listening to the weather report. "It's going to be a cold day today; I'd better take a warm coat," he thinks to himself on the way to the kitchen. He pours himself a glass of orange juice while looking at his appointment book. He considers making himself some eggs but thinking of his waistline he decides against it.
grabs an apple and some change on the way out and runs down the stairs, whistling.
On the street, he looks around and takes a deep breath; an early morning shower
has cleansed the air, and he notices the birds singing and the spring buds in
the trees. He feels light as the air; at one with the sun above the trees, the
people in the street, and the earth below him. He arrives at the bus stop a few
minutes early and gets on the bus smiling at the bus driver who smiles back.
Even though he tends to be a loner he wakes an effort and
picks a seat next to a young man whom he recognizes from
previous rides to work. Sitting down he takes
up a conversation with his seatmate.
Most of us have felt like Boris or Alex at some time in our lives. Boris and Alex both happen to work at the same place, making the same salary, and have approximately the same opportunities in life. Boris's feelings of powerlessness and Alex's feelings of power have to do with a lot more than their incomes and their status in the rat race.
I believe that most people gladly settle for a feeling of power and competence, even if it means doing without the external signs of power, wealth, control, and influence. And I believe that most of us look for that feeling of power where it is hardest to find and ignore the sources of power which are based on cooperation: our hearts, bodies, and minds.
Again the question: What is it in Alex that gives him that feeling of power if it isn't his money, possessions, and external accessories? Why the difference between Alex and Boris? Is Alex just lucky? Is it his upbringing? Was he born that way? If you asked either of them that question, they would probably not really know why.
People don't necessarily understand what leads to a feeling of power and well-being. "Being able to pay off my debts." "Being in love." "Knowing self-defense." "Having an education." "Not having to worry about money." "Getting a better job." These are common answers to the question: "What would give you a feeling of power?" People also know that these are partial answers; that for a sustained feeling of power and well-being, something more profound and thoroughgoing is needed. What it is, is not obvious. Certainly, the absence of an overpowering Critical Parent is a partial answer; words like faith, security, self-acceptance or love come to mind, but fail to satisfy fully. The answer is complicated and not by any means well understood; what makes us feel satisfyingly and enduringly powerful, why Boris and Alex feel so differently from each other is a mystery which we will explore in the next chapter.
(Back to home?)
POWER LITERACY; UNDERSTANDING POWER AND ITS MYTHS.
Physical power is well understood by scientists. It can be measured precisely and computed down to the fraction of an erg-the unit of physical power. The power of engines or the potential for power that is stored in dams, batteries, coiled springs, steam, can all be easily ascertained with the aid of formulas and calculations which any high-school student can learn. Yet human power is not nearly as clear. We know that some people are more powerful than others, and we have some vague ideas of why, but the variables that are responsible for the differences are not easily understood: they cannot be measured or computed.
In physics, we know that power depends on force and the distance over which that force is exerted. This knowledge is probably responsible for the fact that we tend to think of human power in similar terms: that it depends on how far we can push something (or somebody) around.
Before Isaac Newton quantified the laws of motion and developed the science of mechanics people who were involved with mechanical devices were able to use them only on an intuitive basis-much as most of us still do today. If we have to move a large object like a trunk we lift up one side, we kick it, we push it about, we step back and take a look at it and we can usually guess how many people or what kind of equipment it would take to move it to where we want it.
If the problem is more complicated, our intuitive grasp may break down. What kind of a ramp would be needed to get it on the back of a truck? How long? How thick should the ramp be? Some people's intuitive understanding (some- times known as "mechanical ability") might reach that far, and some others' won't. However, any person could use measurements and formulas to figure out just exactly how steep, long, and thick a ramp is needed to do the job. The information on how to make these calculations is available, and can be taught and learned because the variables in the area of physical forces and power are known and can be measured.
I believe that in the future, people's power-(other than merely physical)-will be as clearly understood as physical power is today. At the moment, however, the understanding of human power is purely intuitive; some people have an excellent grasp of it, but none understand it on a scientific basis.
Combined with the fact that power is not clearly understood, there are several myths about power which hold very strong sway over people's minds. There are three major power myths:
1. The myth that most people are equally powerful.
2. The myth that people are basically powerless.
3. The myth that people have complete power over their own experiences and destiny.
Myth No. 1. We All Have Equal Power
People in this country believe in the effectiveness of our system of government to distribute power more or less evenly among its citizens. After all, great accumulations of wealth are prevented by antitrust laws, graduated income tax, inheritance taxes. Corporations are accountable to the people and are required to open their books and must hold stockholders' meetings. Politicians are subjected to public scrutiny regularly, and presidents have a strict rules about campaign spending and can't hold office for more than two terms. All of these mechanisms are examples of the many guarantees we have that prevent any one person or group of people from accumulating excessive power. We know that some people are more powerful than others, but we believe that the differences are not large. After all, we are a democracy where everyone is equal under the law. There may be huge imbalances of power in other countries, but not in ours.
As one highway patrolman once put it to me in response to my clever arguments designed to talk myself out of a ticket, "I'm sorry, Mr. Steiner, but if the chairman of Exxon or the president of the United States drove past me over the speed limit, I would have to give him a ticket just like you. Everyone has the same rights in this country. That's what democracy is all about."
As the officer spoke, I realized that he actually believed what he was saying. Many other people do, too. The enormous imbalances of power existing in the United States were truly hidden to him. Had I asked him whether he believed that there exists a power elite that makes most of the major decisions that affect us, he would think I was paranoid. That lesson in the mythology of power cost me eighty dollars.
Yet there is such a thing as a power elite: a group of men-most of them not elected politicians-who silently affect our lives without any knowledge on our part and who most definitely don't get speeding tickets though they manage to move around very swiftly indeed.
The literature documenting this fact is extensive. Books such as Power, Inc., The Abuse of Power, The Power Elite, The Power Broker, The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats, America Inc., Who Owns and Operates the United States, to name a few, tell in detail who belongs to this group, how it operates, how its members meet, how they make agreements, and how they affect our lives.
These men and a very few women understand how to bring about desired results in their dealings with others. In their personal relationships, in small-group gatherings, and when dealing with large groups of consumers, voters, opponents, or supporters, they use their knowledge of power and tend to get their way because they have a grasp of the variables and forces involved in the manipulation of people.
They are called the "power elite" by some, the "ruling class" by others, the "super-rich" by others. and just plain "rich folks" by yet others.
One major gap in our information about the super-powerful is that we tend to think of people who have power and money as one group of folks: the rich. Most of us think in terms of $100,000- to $200,000-a-year salaries, at the very most. But $200,000 a year is nothing to the super-rich. They think nothing of spending for a watch what most of us would not dream of spending for a car, or spend for an auto what you and I spend for a house. You and I may be awed by boxcar figures, but the super-rich are excited only by locomotives. That kind of wealth and power is as hard for you and me to grasp as the value of $1,000 was to understand when we were three years old. The amounts of money (and therefore power) which the executives of this country's major corporations play with is truly beyond the average person's grasp. Think of this: less than 5% of the top earners in this country earn the same as the lowest 85%.
Whether in our country or abroad, behind an Iron or Bamboo Curtain or in front of it, whether in monarchies, democracies, sheikdoms, or fascist countries, the super-powerful behave as if giving power to the people were a silly idea-not to be taken seriously, except in matters of little importance.
An example of the manner in which our most important affairs are run without our advice or consent by the super powerful was the Vietnam War. Most of what went on in that period of time was hidden from the American people. Millions who did not support the war were grossly deceived. Their sons were sent to die, driven insane, crippled, and forced to become indiscriminate killers. For many years, nothing could be done to stop the process. People's economic and financial resources were appropriated and used for an entirely senseless war. The few who rebelled against this outrage were persecuted, jailed, beaten, forced into exile, and made the victims of conspiracies aimed at destroying them. We ultimately had our democratic way on that particular issue and I remember distinctly when Nixon resigned and we thought that we had won!
Today in 2004 the almost identical pattern is being played out all over again in Iraq. Again most of what is going on is being hidden from the American people. Millions who did not support the war were grossly deceived. Their sons were sent to die, driven insane, crippled, and driven to become indiscriminate killers. People's economic and financial resources are being appropriated and used for an entirely senseless operation. Those who make the major economic and political decisions in the world will protect the power that they holds and silently, constantly, expand it whenever and wherever possible. The only difference between 30 years ago and today is that media, especially the Internet, are not as tightly controlled by the powerful. As a consequence the lies and other power abuses taking place are being intensely scrutinized and reported. Information in the hands of a democratic electorate can be a very antidote to the power abuse of the super powerful.
In the late 70's while I was writing this book a major struggle developing over nuclear power. Major corporations operated behind the scenes; in this case, General Electric and Westinghouse (who make nuclear-energy-related equipment), the utilities, and the oil companies. Technical and moral mystifications were used as a smoke screen for the economic profit-making issues that are the real motivation for nuclear proliferation. Those who supported nuclear power were willing to ignore and invalidate the wishes of the majority; to interfere with the flow of information about what they were doing; to make decisions outside of the democratic process; and to continue to push through, at all costs, a patently disastrous approach to our energy problems.
Once again the power of the people prevailed; nuclear power became untenable as an energy source. The struggle over nuclear power was long and hard and is certainly not over. And still, waiting in the wings for a renewed opportunity, the super powerful energy brokers stand ready to reintroduce the nuclear option; the super powerful never rest.
Myth No. 2. We Are Powerless
In the course of an ordinary day there are many frustrations and obstacles which we as private, separate citizens feel completely powerless over. Whether it is a gasoline shortage or a traffic jam, whether we're being driven crazy by the neighbor's children or by our own thoughts run amok, whether we have to wait in long lines at the post office or can't find a job, whether we have our utilities cut off or whether our checks are bouncing like a bushel of Ping-Pong balls on a cement floor, whether we have to tolerate abuse from purse snatchers. shopkeepers, or giant corporations we are liable to feel that we are completely powerless. At that point, we then tend to blame ourselves and believe that we are not worthy because we quit high school or did not finish college, that we are stupid, that we lack willpower and haven't worked hard enough. We tear ourselves down. We become hopeless. We give up. When we feel this low we are likely to decide that we are completely powerless, that the cards are totally stacked against us. and that the situation is beyond any remedy. When we get into this state of mind, we are liable to withdraw from other people and become ashamed of our inadequacy; we feel completely powerless.
If we are powerless long enough, the feeling can become second nature. The feeling of hopelessness, of being incapable of changing the situation we are in, is surely familiar to poor and Third World people living in slums and ghettos. Of the roughly six billion people that inhabit the world, one half--three billion--live on less than two dollars a day. Their experience of hopelessness is surely constant, crushing and seemingly beyond repair.
But a similar feeling can be found in all levels of society in the form of fatalism and nihilism: that deeply ingrained belief that nothing can be done to change things and that things will happen regardless of what we do.
The truth, however, is that a person alone, beyond a certain point of hopelessness, cannot necessarily pull himself out of the hole by his bootstraps. An infusion of energy will have to come from outside himself. Assuming that he can't count on God's help (if he gets it so much the better), it will have to come from other people. We need each other's help, and there is no dishonor to admitting it-but we are not taught to see that. Our tendency to "go it alone" contributes to our powerlessness and hides how powerful we really can be.
The truth is that powerlessness and isolation go together. Even if we are powerless as individuals, we can become powerful when we get together with others to change things. What people can do when they do organize is truly awesome. Those who make it their business to control others are keenly aware of the power of organized people. That is why such drastic measures are taken in totalitarian countries against allowing gatherings of people (other than sports events, where attention is distracted away from feelings of powerlessness) and against unions and political parties, all of which can provide much feared opportunities for organizing.
The feeling of powerlessness always has a component which is justified and a component which is not (called surplus powerlessness. by Michael Lerner). Granted that we are, to a certain extent, powerless against all the things and people that oppress us, we still have a lot of power to turn things around. Where one person is powerless, eight like minded people have a chance, twelve may be able to turn things around, and a hundred can move mountains. Just look at what Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles were able to accomplish. How he did it is documented by Jay Haley in The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ.
The major antidote to powerlessness is collective action. The myth of powerlessness survives only as long as people don't organize to take power.
Myth No. 3. We Are as Powerful as We Want to Be
Right alongside the myth of powerlessness is another myth which holds that our life is exactly as we choose it to be. If we really want to succeed, we will, and whether we do or not depends completely on ourselves. We are in sole control of our destinies; in short, we create our own reality.
I call this notion "The Son of the American Dream" because it is an artifact of the economic and geographic conditions in which US citizens have lived for the last century. The conditions of plenty, which a few were able to easily exploit to their advantage, created the illusion for most North Americans that success and happiness were just a matter of being willing to work hard enough.
The American Dream has been largely an illusion for most of the people of this country. Lately it is even more illusory, Nevertheless, the myth persists. Many of us still believe that we can and will achieve the Dream just as some of us can and will win the lottery. The point is that most of us won't. The Son of American Dream has gained acceptance among the followers of the pop-psychologists in the "human potential movement." This idea, which has gained great acceptance, actually has a valid basis: the pursuit of happiness is a realistic endeavor, and a great deal depends on our attitudes and actions. But when this point of view becomes distorted into a mindless belief in our absolute power to control our own destiny, it can justifiably be thought of as having become an idiotic notion.
The word "idiot" comes from the Greek idiotes-which means a person who stands alone. The idiotic notion, as John Wikse points out in his book About Possession, accordingly is the myth of the power of the individual. Today, there are many people who are attempting to live their lives guided by that myth. They try to feel powerful and assume that if they succeed, their subjective feelings of power will correspond to an actual capacity to be powerful in the world. When they don't get what they want, when they fail or get sick, they blame themselves for the failure, thinking they lacked concentration, willpower, or the proper spiritual attitude. The reality is that success or failure in this life depends on more than just what we, in our isolated bubbles, do or think.
People often feel powerful. As I have explained, this feeling can be based on objective reality, or it can be simply a subjective condition. Even when the feeling of power is subjective, however, it is not necessarily completely illusory. Subjective power is an effective trigger or catalyst for the development of real power. Self-confidence and the power of positive thinking give us a certain amount of real power because they give us faith and hope. They prime the pump for objective power. But to rely on this feeling of power as a source of sustained power in the world can be a mistake leading to powerlessness. When a whole population accepts this myth, it plays into the hands of those who profit from our impotence: it turns us into idiotic, self-deluded sheep, ready to be fleeced at will.
Why is this myth so attractive? It helps us temporarily escape the awful feeling of being unable to keep our heads above water. When we fear that we cannot deal with life, it helps to think that through an effort of will we could-single-handedly-change everything to our advantage and improve our lives. It gives us hope when we feel hopeless. It makes life worth living. Unfortunately, in most cases, it is not a useful myth. True, hope is an important force in people's lives. When we are completely overwhelmed and paralyzed a ray of hope is capable of giving us that extra boost, that additional burst of energy which may actually get us going again. But hope is a spark, like the fuse on a stick of dynamite. It alone can do very little to move mountains without something that will do the actual moving. To rely on that illusory spark to power our lives is a mistake.
The fact is that before we can be truly powerful, the myth that we are the masters of our own reality has to be understood for what it is. The truth is that we are neither completely powerless, nor completely able to create our own reality. Reality lies somewhere in between. At times, under certain circumstances, we can create our own reality. At times we are truly powerless. Most of the time we have the power to accomplish certain things and are powerless to accomplish certain others. What we feel is not only up to us, but is also the result of the reality around us.
Whether we achieve success in life is not only the result of how hard we try, but of what opportunities we find on the way, how many people support us in our efforts, what kinds of resources we have available to us, and how much we know about power. The power that we have at any one time depends on what we muster for the situation and how much acceptance the world offers us in response to our efforts. It is. in fact, a 50-50 proposition (or 70-30, or 80-20). Our power depends partially on what we do and partially on what others do in response to it. Neither the myth of powerlessness nor the myth of absolute power makes any sense at all in the real world; what is needed is a sophisticated knowledge about power and the way it functions. That knowledge is called "power literacy."
To succeed in our efforts, we have to become power-literate; we have to become aware of the existence of the power and methods of the super-powerful as well as the power that each one of us has. To begin to comprehend what the distribution of power really is, how much of it is in other people's hands is a very important step in understanding power and taking our power back from those who hold a surplus. Without an awareness of the super-powerful, we cannot effectively honor own power: we can't grasp what power we could have, how much power we have given away, and how much power we have failed to develop for ourselves.
Boris and Alex Revisited
The difference between Boris and Alex in the previous chapter is not accidental. Nothing in my description accounts particularly for the difference between them; so let's look behind the scenes and see what might be going on to explain their disparate experiences.
Boris does not communicate with people very well. We see that when given a chance to talk to Alex about how he feels, Boris declines, preferring to appear to be OK and save face. He feels and his Critical Parent tells him that he and he alone should deal with his problems and that it is a sign of weakness to "spread them all over town." He also feels a sense of hopelessness that has caused him to give up and stop trying to stay healthy. His Critical Parent harasses him about being weak-willed and stupid.
His deteriorating relationship with Jill is responsible for a large portion of his feelings of powerlessness. He gets very little comfort or affection from it: instead, a lot of energy is expended in power plays over who is right and who is wrong, who is to blame, who wins and who loses. He suspects that she doesn't love him anymore, and he is not sure he cares. But that is never discussed between them, so the discord continue.
At work the situation is even worse. Boris doesn't enjoy his job. Consequently his employer is constantly mildly dissatisfied and he shows it by frequent attempts to power-play him into doing more and better work. Boris resists with passive power plays. He is often late to work, he dozes at his desk. He takes long coffee breaks and tries to leave work early. Privately Boris believes (again, his Critical Parent agrees) that he is lazy. He hates his boss-there certainly is no love lost between them-and working in close proximity is extremely uncomfortable for both of them.
Boris has to deal with three major problem areas: His Critical Parent, his struggles with his wife, and his poor work situation. All three of these areas are a severe drain of energy and power.
When all the stresses are added up, Boris has no energy to spare. He becomes forgetful. He can't think things through. He has no time for pleasure or beauty. He is exhausted and freaked out at the same time. He uses drugs to deal with his feelings of discomfort, and they work temporarily, but their side effects add to his troubles. Sleeping pills make him groggy during the day. The coffee he drinks and cigarettes he smokes keep him awake at night and cause his diarrhea and stomach upset. To keep his weight down, he "diets," but does it so erratically that he always regains what he loses, while enduring constant dietary insufficiencies. To soothe his queasy belly he eats highly sugared foods, doughnuts, candy bars, and drinks sugarless soda pop. The sugar gives him a shot in the arm first and causes drowsiness later. Artificial sweeteners and other food additives make him irritable and throw him off balance.
No wonder he feels powerless; he can't control what goes on in his head or what he puts in his mouth. His relationships and his emotions seem crazy much of the time.
In contrast, John is more communicative than Jack. When he feels bad, he is likely to find someone to talk to about it and figure out how to improve things. He and Maria , especially, speak openly to each other and even though they have very different points of view and personalities they rarely fight. When there is a conflict, they know how to resolve it without power plays, by finding a cooperative solution and staying open to each others affection. At work, though he is not happy with his job, he does his work, and is quite creative and productive. His boss is satisfied and respects him. His co-workers like him and he gets along with them in a friendly, cooperative way. His relationships at work and with Maria energize him rather than sap his power. He therefore has surplus energy with which to watch his diet, exercise, plan ahead, think things through, limit his consumption of coffee, cigarettes, sugar and pills. He has room in his life to notice beauty and to take it easy, all of which energizes him further. His Critical Parent isn't very strong and seldom affects him very deeply. The net effect of all of this is that he feels powerful.
Let us now look into the workings of power by learning more about Control and people's power plays.
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Click here for Book 2; People's Power Plays