Thursday, February 14, 2013

Myths of Power-With: # 3 - The Maligning of Hierarchy

by Miki Kashtan

Like many people I know, I used to think of hierarchy as entirely synonymous with power-over, and of both as fundamentally wrong. It still takes conscious, mindful practice to remember that I no longer see it this way. Because it’s not fully integrated in me, I am delighted to be writing about this particular myth, imagining that my own faltering understanding might improve as a result, and that it will also make it easier for others to follow my thinking, as I am less likely to speak from the other side of a piece of personal evolution.

What Is Power?

Although this is the third installment of this mini-series (see the first, and second), I haven’t yet described what I mean by power-over, power-with, or even power more generally. Given how difficult it is to tease apart hierarchy from power-over, I want to start there. I define power, simply, as the capacity to mobilize resources to attend to needs. This simple definition has been a radical revelation for me, for two reasons. One is that it becomes immediately clear that all of us need power, or we wouldn’t be able to attend to any of our other needs. The other is that in the way I define it power itself appears neutral in addition to being necessary. This definition separates power from how it’s being used: despite our general use of language, power-over is not something we have; it’s something we do – it’s our choices about how we use the power we have.

I have found these distinctions exceptionally helpful in understanding our behaviors, because it serves as a reminder that the urge to use power over others is independent of the actual ability to do so. In other words, it’s not so much that power corrupts; it’s that power provides the possibility of carrying out urges that we might have anyway, regardless of our access to power.