Power Exists꞉ How Shall We Use It?

Vlad Tchompalov/Empty city streets in Washington, D.C. during the pandemic.

Republished from the philosophical journal The Side View.

Power exists. Concentrated in the hands of a few, it shapes every aspect of our lives in the deepest of ways, including our very thoughts and language. This fact is universal across all societies.

Sometimes that power is destructive. We’ve seen bloody wars, cultural disasters, ecological disasters, and economic disasters—all of them traceable directly to the deliberate actions, malicious or merely foolish, of power.

On the other hand, we’ve also seen incredible progress. Peace attained, cultural and intellectual flourishing, ecologies restored, great feats accomplished, and economic development miracles—again, traceable to the deliberate actions, wise and benevolent or merely interested, of power.

What to do about this power, and especially how to achieve the good results and avoid the bad ones, is a central theme in both philosophy and the narratives societies use to organize themselves. We can call this the problem of rule.

To approach the problem of rule, and to come to a productive paradigm that we could use to better organize ourselves as a society, I want to lead you through a thought experiment. It starts with a simple question:

Given that we have all this power, how shall we use it?

To be explicit about the use of “we” here, we are taking the problem of rule head on, from the first-person perspective. As individuals, most of us do not have much power. But ideas are ultimately about active practice, and power is the ability to act, so the first-person view is essential here.

Furthermore, the most powerful and most important actor in society is the ruling elite. Our social ideas must therefore be addressed to at least some hypothetical ruling elite, if not the current one. If they do not have a well-developed paradigm for rule from the first-person perspective, or they have the wrong one, they will not be able to govern well.

So, to make our question more direct, we could ask, “What would you do if you were the ruling elite, and you had personal moral responsibility for the outcome?”

We will also need, eventually, a third-person view of power. There are after all both rulers and ruled in any society. But a healthy first-person view of power will give us a context for the third-person view, so we will start with the first. “We” hereafter, then, refers not only to the participants in this written discourse, but to the perspective of our hypothetical philosopher-elite.

Our thought experiment will proceed through a series of perceptual transformations, adding nuance and new considerations at each step. As we follow the logic of the framing question to its conclusion, its implications will trickle down to reformulate our whole political worldview:

  • First, we will reorient our attention to answering the question of what power should do, as opposed to all the other ways to approach political discourse.
  • Second, we will expand and reconsider our interests in light of the full set of assets and liabilities in our empire.
  • Third, we will consider how political order is actually constructed, and the new set of interests and concerns that come from that construction.
  • Fourth, we will stop to wonder why we ought to care to rule well at all. What’s in it for us?
  • Fifth, having developed a healthy perspective for a responsible elite, we will expand our identity to the collective selfhood of an entire society.

Occupying the Throne

We’re not going to start with a healthy perspective. We’re going to start by occupying the throne of sovereignty and flexing our power muscles. Bear with me.

Imagine you were in charge. You need to now see the world in terms of the governing actions of power, and you need to have an opinion about what that power ought to be doing. You need to develop a responsible governing intention. Occupying this perspective is the first step.

Pick your favorite political issue. Housing? Transportation? Military? Immigration? Something local? That one road they closed to outside traffic? Dictate. Put your current instincts in the governing seat. What would you do as the ruling elite?

Build more houses and trains. Ban healthcare. Replace farm subsidies with ranch subsidies. Arrest the opposition. Put the universities on the hook for student debt. Invade the moon. Levy a carbon tax. Whatever seems right to you. Don’t even worry about being moderate for now. Unleash your inner ruler, and get radical.

It is actually a hard question to answer. You’re being asked to put your money where your mouth is, in a way. To take responsibility. This is not merely a Socratic critique of everyone else’s actions and ideas, or bonding with your friends over shared values and troubles, and getting angry at corrupt politicians. No, this is putting your neck out there with your own positive account of the nature of justice and what must be done. Our usual patterns of thought aren’t fit for it.

Which is exactly the point. Our current instincts aren’t that good. The point is to take seriously the problem of rule from the first person, breaking out of the grooves of our usual third-person perspective, so that we can come to a better way of thinking about what we should do with our power as a society.

This is different from many of our usual ways of talking about political matters. We often see politics as a battle against the political enemy, an object of detached study, an imposition on our lives, a prompt for individual lifestyle change, or something to be influenced but not governed. These are all fair and practical perspectives. But they do not answer the question. Power still exists. How shall we use it? A tool cannot be used well without a coherent vision of what to do with it. To get an answer, we need to firmly occupy the first person, grappling with power as a responsibility and a tool.

The Holistic Perspective

Having settled our current political instincts into the seat of sovereign authority, how does this change those instincts? Our ideology evolves just by taking the idea of its implementation seriously.

Our existing concerns are usually driven by our immediate sphere of attention, our immediate interests, and our relatively un-tested idealizations.

You commute by car, but you hate traffic, so naturally you want to widen that freeway and reopen that one scenic road to nonlocal traffic. But if you take your new holistic perspective—with a responsibility for the big picture—you start to wonder whether this way of thinking will solve the problem most efficiently and effectively. What about denser housing near the core? Or better public transit? Or different zoning?

Perhaps you have a business interest in resource extraction, so you want to plow ahead without this silly talk of environmental sustainability. Or perhaps you have no such interest, and instead you simply want to put an end to environmental damage. But again, now responsible for the whole picture, you have to prudently account for both sides of that balance, over the longer term.

Maybe you own small-scale rental housing, so you don’t think the city should recklessly build low-rent slums in your backyard. Or you rent, so you think the state should build an oversupply of housing to crash the market. Looking at the big picture, these provincial interests fade into the background and you become interested in what’s best for the city overall.

In general, this is a transformation of provincial interests to holistic interests. Your perspective now abstracts over more time, space, social function, and human variation.

But if not our current interests, what does make good policy? We still need some guiding paradigm. There are other things we might target. Political prudence and the needs of political order and state capacity. The health of your empire and prosperity of the people. The spiritual self-development of your society. We will get to these ideas. You may already have some sympathy for them.

But for now, in this lower tier of consciousness, where we think in terms of interests, consider that by now having control and responsibility over the whole empire, instead of just a small corner, our priorities are fundamentally different.

If we take this insight seriously, and we use it as a basis for re-thinking our aims, it deeply recodes our worldview. We empathize with the elite. Many previously inexplicable policies, and things that chafed on us, start to make sense. Many people we didn’t previously sympathize with become important responsibilities. Many things we didn’t care about that seemed unimportant become central. Some issues even flip in valuation.

The output is a new, more coherent ruling ethos, in which the parts of our program fit together, and more closely match the whole set of concerns that our empire faces. A holistic grand strategy emerges, one that can be applied to guide our concerns in particular cases, not just our pre-existing prejudices and provincial concerns. We become more able to occupy the mindset of the responsible statesman-elite.

This is all still a thought experiment. Strictly a hypothetical. You are free to keep your relatively more provincial or otherwise non-ruling ideology. But even just as a hypothetical, there are two big effects:

First, given this responsible perspective that actually engages sincerely with the challenges of power, you are in a much better position to critique the existing elite. By engaging more sincerely and expertly with the actual logic of the governing position, you are coming at them with more authority, and more potential for your critiques to be taken seriously.

But second, that logic turns around on you as well. The natural perspective of the state is not really a hypothetical, given its ability to impose it on society and you. It becomes normative. Many formerly attractive ideologies are revealed as futile and unrealistic as they do things that responsible governance cannot allow. It changes how you look at things.

These changes are an elevation of our perspective towards that of idealized authority. This perspective of responsible governance is already quite a bit healthier than where we started. It has already started unifying the interests of rulers and ruled in its logic. But it is nowhere near complete.

Building Inclusive Political Order

So far, we have made a few simplifying assumptions:

We have assumed a hard division between rulers and ruled. The ruled are politically inert, and can be herded around by the power of the ruler. The ruler is not subject to internal division or structure, but simply carries out some program of rule.

We have taken political order for granted. The state will stay secure, and doesn’t have to worry about rebellions, traitors, court politics, or the actual logistics of regime formation and program execution.

We have assumed the capabilities of the state are given. We have not addressed how power actually works, how it is constructed and held and used, and therefore what kinds of powers we will have.

These things are not at all assured. In fact they are all dangerous fictions, liable to produce disasters if applied sincerely, or at best hypocrisy and inefficiency.

If we take seriously the idea that subjects don’t have political agency, we will not be able to harness their dynamic potential. In fact, people have an incredible ability to organize themselves, to rule their local domains, and to interface with the larger political structures around them. The Hayekian knowledge argument—about local action matching local information, resources, and needs to a global context—applies to political organizations and economic regimes alike.

Worse, by using an ontology that discounts local agency, we implicitly classify it as a kind of corruption in need of correction. The ebb and flow of local interest, information, and action become pathologized, and you end up waging an oppressive battle against social reality. Restrictive and simplistic models of what’s supposed to be happening are a huge source of destructive over-interference, in our society and in the world in general. There is subtlety here, though: This model shear isn’t always a mistake, and is in fact often a consciously applied weapon in the toolbox of power. Anyone with the power to define official social ontology is in possession of a fearsome weapon for the shaping of social fabric. Again, let us meditate on how to use these powers well.

The boundary between state and society is also imaginary. Let’s describe and think of society and the state as they actually are: a teeming forest of growing and decaying institutions and conspiracies in various states of coordination with each other, the commanding heights of which are integrated into a semi-institutionalized, semi-coherent central power, the formal parts of which we call the state. It’s a system of information flows, power empires, social technologies, social network hubs, and inert human resources. A complex sociopolitical narrative of legitimacy supporting and mapping a complex sociopolitical reality that it only partially resembles. A complex adaptive system.

Political order is the structural integrity of this pyramid. It means ensuring that all subordinate institutions stay subordinate, the ruling institutions stay ruling, the loyal are promoted, rebels stay suppressed, the parts work together instead of fighting, and the people support the regime. Without political order, you get instability, as rival power centers challenge the regime, and fragmentation creates broken parts while a weakened center fails to coordinate its empire. Political order cannot be taken for granted. Nor is it an anachronism. It is deeply central to any society, and needs to be continuously renewed.

Active construction of political order, by building, deconstructing, and herding subordinate power centers, is inseparable from the actual capabilities of the state. The central power of a modern society has immense ability to reshape and control nearly every aspect of life, within the constraints of knowing how to do so, getting the institutions to cooperate, and building necessary machinery. Almost nothing can be done by pure fiat, but almost anything can be done. The game is much more about mapping and manipulating this actual ruling structure towards a generally defined end than it is about twiddling technocratic policy knobs.

To update our question, then, what does it even mean to be in charge of such a thing? How shall its power be organized behind our own conception of the good?

Being in charge means being in a position of strong influence over the central powerful institutions in the empire in question. It means having a deep and fluent understanding of power, especially our own base of power. Being in charge is a much more active position. At the same time, it means identifying ourselves with the center of an institutional machine larger than ourselves, becoming an instrument of its imagination, and thinking up ideas of what to do with its power, from its own perspective. Being in charge becomes a mixture of actively maneuvering to build and possess the institution, and playing a role in letting it possess you.

With this more active set of concerns, our perspective shifts again. We come to focus on the institutions themselves, on building and repairing a base of power, on maintaining information flows, sniffing out and resolving discoordination, and on finding new ways to extend the power to accomplish our vision, including by empowering others. We aggressively centralize power here, and apply a restrained decentralization there.

This is very different from the initial focus on twiddling policy knobs in pursuit of a naively imagined objective notion of responsible government. This is also a much firmer set of realities on which to ground the idea of good policy: good policy must actively maintain and develop political order in the complex system of society.

Again, this is another step towards a healthier way of seeing things. We’re engaging more with actual reality, and building a much more organic, responsive, and politically inclusive sort of regime. And we’re also starting to ground the perspective of the state in something more solid. But we’re not done yet.

Higher Pursuits, Together

Our first instinct has rightly been to simply take the problem of rule at face value, and then do the right thing. The result so far has been a responsible governing perspective that actively builds an organic and participatory political order.

But faced with the reality of actually having power, the naive intention will rapidly dissolve, and the question of personal motivation will become central. Why do we care to govern well? Why not just make the state serve our own wants, and those of our friends? It’s less that power corrupts our motivations, and more that it strips away the veneers of naivety and social constraint and enables the actual reality of our motivations to shine through.

We will make the state serve our own motivations. But the simple appetites of the body can be solved rather cheaply. You and your friends only need so much food, sex, living space, and clothing. Even when fulfilled lavishly, at some point we run out of appetite for personal luxury. The state has resources beyond our wildest personal desires. Only the largest motivations will do.

Once our basic needs are handled, and we work the luxury drive out of our system, our attention naturally turns to much more scalable and less-assured higher needs: social connection, glory, esteem, knowledge, play, exploration, creativity, piety, and growth. We have an entire empire with which to pursue these things, and an empire’s worth of people to work with in doing so. What do these aims look like on a civilization scale?

These higher needs aren’t really personal, either. They are best shared with others. Perhaps even with our entire empire. And to pursue them best, we need everyone at their peak. We need to govern for prosperity, meaning, connection, harmony, and collective capability. We need to narrate and think in terms of governing for a grand collective adventure in pursuit of those higher wants.

The decadence of late dynasties and new money is not reflective of wisdom, but of ignorance. They have forgotten, or not yet learned, that private luxury and corruption is just far lamer and less interesting than effective pursuit of the higher ends. Or they just don’t know how to reach for anything more substantial. One of the most important jobs of the philosopher in society is to remind us—and create a narrative for us—of the intrinsic superiority of the higher pursuits.

This is the most difficult and least reliable of our perspective transformations, because it’s not a matter of practicality, but of self reflection and self transformation. It is no less compelling, but requires more philosophical imagination. We are much more likely to succeed if the philosophers of the day provide a well-developed narrative paradigm to guide us through it.

And so we come to a healthy first-person view of power: It is the leadership of a collective enterprise in pursuit of first subsistence, and then higher goods.

Towards a Collective Selfhood

This sets up the final transformation of our political perspective.

Consider the correspondence between the structure of the mind as a self, and the structure of society as a collective selfhood. The mind has many of the same problems we’ve been discussing. It has a multitude of processes that need to be governed, integrated into a coherent teleological order, and aimed at moving towards higher goals as a collective body.

Having done so, the mind conceives of its problems no longer in terms of its internal mechanics, but in terms of knowledge, skills, plans, virtues, mindfulness, askēsis, and spiritual enlightenment. That is, it becomes a subjective selfhood.

As an insight about the ordering of the mind, this is neat, but the real treasure is applying it the other way: Having solved the basic conceptual foundation of rule, we can look at society as a collective selfhood.

We can pursue virtue, knowledge, play, skills, exploration, meditation, contemplation, and enlightenment, but as a collective self. We are composed of many, but can also be organized into a holistic self. Our problems can be approached as the internal ordering of a single complex being.

This isn’t an original idea. The correspondence between an individual mind and a society is a classic theme in philosophy. It is also a frequent recourse in political discussion: the naive political “we” is exactly this organized collective selfhood.

This idea usually lacks grounding, but here we have grounded the political “we” in the first-person logic of rule as a philosopher-elite might think it through. If we take the problem of rule seriously enough from the first person, we get an expansive and healthy conception of collective selfhood that many more than just the actual holders of power can participate in.

Most political and therefore ethical worldviews are unstable under either victory or reflection. They dissolve if the user actually achieves the governing seat or thinks too hard about their interests as rulers. They are thus only good for power grabs and dupes. This whole thought experiment has been an attempt to engineer directly to pass these tests: adopt the first person perspective of a ruling elite, and then take its transformative consequences very seriously to see where we end up. Assuming we got the logic right, the result is something that could actually work, but still ends up somewhere reasonable and even enticing.

In the ancient world, the men who kicked off this whole philosophical enterprise in the first place had a similar idea: that justice was not something that needed to be imposed on rulers, but recommended itself to the first person on its own strength and goodness, to those who were philosophically receptive. The key, as in Plato’s attempts with the Academy, is to develop this core ideal into a practical working paradigm that can be systematically taught to an aspiring philosopher-elite.

Wolf Tivy is Editor-at-Large of Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @wolftivy.