Some might define power as being able to get what you want. But as Mick told us so many years ago…

I think many of us are feeling pretty powerless these days to affect change in our country. So I thought it would be interesting to have a little conversation about power and the different ways it works. I’ll share a little of my experience and hope you will chime in down below in the comments.

Most of our conceptions about power stem from a basic acceptance of hierarchy. It is the classic patriarchal view of power. In other words, someone has power if they have power over someone or something. Its the model I was taught about relationships in the church.

But if any of you lived in a household that was similarly structured, you might have the same experience I did, which was that Mom had a way of getting what she wanted too. In other words, she had power, but it tended to be covert in comparison to Dad’s overt power. This leads me to think that we all have power in some form or another. Its just a question of whether or not we claim it overtly.

The reality is, the only real power we have is over ourselves. Anytime we have power “over” someone else, its because they’ve given it to us. This is the classic assumption behind all theories of non-violent resistance…we have the power to choose whether or not we cooperate with those who would attempt to control us. In the end, they can beat us up, put us in jail, or kill us, but they can’t force us to comply with their wishes.

In my professional life, I’ve been having some interesting discussions that have taught me another aspect of power. As many of you know, I’m the director of a small non-profit. Most of our funding comes from our county government in the form of contracts for service. Our county has a budget of over $570 million per year as compared to our agency’s $1.5 million. In a hierarchical way of seeing things then, it would appear as if the county had all the power to tell us what to do.

But what we have discovered is that the county needs us. We can do things they can’t do and in ways they can’t do them. Occasionally in negotiations, we’ve had to point that out to them in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. One of the most powerful ways we did that was by walking away from a contract that we thought compromised our mission and values. Through that process, we changed the dynamic of the relationship from one of power-over to one of partnership. By identifying what each party brought to the table that the other one needed, we each claimed our own power and can work together to reach common goals.

I tell you all that because I think its a critical ingredient to the identification of any kind of power. You need to know two things:

1. What do people need from you, and

2. What do you bring to the table.

If we apply this to our political situation, we often limit ourselves to thinking that our only power is our vote. That is certainly something we bring to the table and it appears to be something politicians need from us. But there are two problems with this. First of all, there aren’t enough of us voting our way to carry the day. This is one of the biggest reasons we feel powerless these days I think. We can keep trying to convince others to join us, but both the MSM and time are not on our side right now. And secondly, the reality is that too many politicians believe (and perhaps accurately so in the current system) that they need money more than they need our vote. Goddess knows I don’t have access to those kinds of resources, nor do many of you I suspect.

If that’s the case, what is it that we have that our elected officials need from us? I must admit that I’m rather stumped on that one. A few months ago I talked about the idea that if we could ever figure that one out, we’d have hit the “sweet spot” and the whole system would likely react to try to shut us down…and fast.

Could it be that to the MICMC we are expendable? That is certainly what David Simon, creator of HBO’s “The Wire” is implying.  I think we need to be willing to honestly ask ourselves that question and face the truth of the answer. If we are expendable, then continuing to play the game their way means that we become merely enablers of the system that is exploiting us. And its time to walk away, reclaim our power, and save ourselves.

And if we’re not expendable, we need to identify that “sweet spot” and crank up the noise. Got any ideas?


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  1. from India Arie. She knows a thing or two about power.

    • srkp23 on April 13, 2008 at 17:25

    Yes, from the point of view of the MICMC, people are the only infinitely renewable resource. We are just batteries for this system that exploits us. We are truly in The Matrix except that our overlords aren’t insect-looking machines, but other human beings.  

    • kj on April 13, 2008 at 17:26

    is not something I am very good at, because, through experience, I have come to believe it is one of the most dangerous actions I can chose to take in any situation.

    This does not endear me to others.  So be it.

    • Edger on April 13, 2008 at 17:28


    What do we want the democrats to do?

          End the Iraq Occupation and the Bush/Cheney rain of torture.

    What do the democrats need from you?

         Your vote.

    What do you bring to the table?

         The carrot, and the POWER to dangle it.


    Morning, NL!

  2. if we are needed it is to fuel the process of capital formation…….

    and there are too many of us …….

    time to reduce the size of the pile…..

    our only power is to walk away…..

    ?!? how does one walk away ?!?

  3. The main power one has is non-cooperation. And advertising that no-cooperation. And aligning with others who feel the same way.

    The Power of No.

    The feeling of powerlessness often makes us discount our own efforts.

    But lets look at the other side of the coin for a moment. What would the world be like if there were NOT….us?

    If there weren’t the minority Yelling their guts out? If those who get fed up at long last with the System didn’t have a place to go and a community to welcome them and inform them and support them? That alone is noble work.

    Our nature makes us want to do more, makes us yearn for the power to make great changes….but…..what would the world be like without us? Do NOT despair, we are doing great. And when enough people see what we see, as is happening, the changes will come.

    Keep Yelling, keep building, keep loving and supporting our comrades. We will get to The Promised Land.*


    *And then we will start working to fix what’s wrong with THAT place too!

    • Alma on April 13, 2008 at 18:54

    or at least need someone to do.

    Put out yard signs

    Make calls

    Spread by word of mouth

    Get signatures so they can get on the ballot

    Again, not enough of us to make a difference, but I did let Levin send me a sheet for signatures so he could get on the ballot, and then didn’t get any signatures for him, sending it back empty that I don’t think he’s done his job.

  4. what if the only power left to a soul is the act of recognizing the lack of it……..

    what if we have something else tho…..

    what if at scale power is no longer the issue……

    what else is there to enter the ontological gap…..

    to shape the framing of action……

    • RiaD on April 13, 2008 at 22:40

    we need a coupla laws (IMNSHO)…

    to be applied to ALL federal, state and local elections….

    1) for every position on any ballot there must also be the choice- “NONE OF THE ABOVE” if ever NOTA has greater than 50% then ALL of the candidates for that race can never run for any office ever again

    2) if ever the approval rating of ANY person in an elected position(office?)should fall below 34% that person is immediately dismissed, all benefits stripped, & s/he shall never run for any office ever again.

    3) all elections will be done with verifyable ballots & reciepts.

    these three laws would return the power to the people, make voting meaningful……for both the people & the candidates.

    as soon as these are enacted, i propse we do away with lobbying altogether….. if you can’t make you argument without bribery…you don’t have much of an arguement IMHO.

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