When someone exerts power over you, they’ve turned you into a thing. Taken to the extreme, power turns you into a literal thing, a corpse. A step or two short, power turns you into an abstraction, a number, or an instrument with no will or dignity of your own.
When you’re not a thing, you count. You’re human. Your life has meaning and consequence. When you’re a human, you’re an end in yourself, not to be used, worn out, and cast aside. Much of life is not like that. You’re just another number, crushed under the wheels of circumstance without a thought about who you are.
Power, taken to the extreme, will kill; but it doesn’t need to kill to have an effect. Power’s ability to kill, reduce you into an outright thing, hangs over your head, ready to strike at any moment, which is to say, every moment. Power can turn you into an object under its control, into a thing while you’re still alive. It’s not easy to be a thing while you’re still alive. There’s no room for any impulse of your own. You’re a slave and must do the bidding of your master.
Here’s the part that people miss, though: power turns the powerful into things, too. Power may crush the powerless; but it intoxicates the powerful. The truth is, you don’t possess power; power possesses you. The human race is not divided up into the powerless and the powerful. Everyone has death hanging over their heads. Absolute power is not possible. Even the powerful must worry about a revolt. And when the possibility of being turned into a thing is there, it’s made you powerless, already.
The powerful don’t seem to be aware of this fact. The powerful walk around as if their power has no limit; and, indeed, because they have turned humans into things, there is no one to tell them otherwise. When there is no opposition, they’re in a bubble and everything they do seems right. That’s why the powerful behave harshly and why they’re so surprised when fate turns against them.
Let’s look at an ordinary example to see how this works. Suppose a man is convinced he’s right, and his wife is wrong. He feels powerful because he has truth on his side. Of course, he arrives at this conclusion when there’s no one there to oppose it, for he is forming his argument in his own mind. The opposition is made of straw. His righteousness is nothing but a grand gesture in an empty theater.
When he goes to his wife to try to convince her he’s right, he meets her with a full head of steam. She sees he’s come to his conclusion without her. He’s already turned her into an abstraction. His argument threatens to turn her into more of a thing; not a dead thing, necessarily, but an object under his control; a thing while she’s still alive. Seeing this, she looks for some power of her own. They could just accept the fact that no two people are going to agree on it all; but no, they respond to what they perceive is an existential threat. They end up in a state very close to war where power contends against power. Once a war starts, they must take it to the end to justify the powerlessness they have suffered.
To the extent they feel threatened, the husband and wife will each mobilize some power against the other. She’ll raise her voice, he’ll use his anger; she’ll pout, he’ll tell her she’s crazy; she’ll make ultimatums, he’ll make threats; she’ll demand he see a therapist; if he goes, he goes to discredit her. Or, someone may go old school and use physical force. Whatever method they use, they’re seeking to preserve their own self-determining, sovereign, independence by undermining that of the other, to make the other think like they do and adopt their own point of view.
If he succeeds in dunning her into compliance and feels good about himself, he will have missed what power has done to him. Possessed by the need for power, he became its slave and forgot himself and everything about his marriage he should hold dear, just so he can make her see he’s right. He will have forgotten there is more at stake than winning this argument.
Such is the nature of power. It converts a human into a thing in two ways. Both those who use it and those who endure it are turned into things. Power achieves its maximum effectiveness in war, but it is present everywhere from the boardroom to the bedroom, from the decision to liquidate assets, to the impulse to make her understand what you have been trying to say.
What choice do we have? A moderate use of power, just enough to escape powerlessness, requires superhuman virtue. In the presence of an armed enemy, who can hand over their weapons? Yet, that’s the only thing that helps.
When power holds sway, we get a picture of absolute horror. But there’s another way. There are luminous moments, scattered here and there in which you are in possession of your soul. These moments live for an instant in the blasted no-man’s land of power. The moment contains no ambiguities. There’s nothing complicated about it. All it is, is courage and love. You meet others on their own terms, without resorting to the perfidious ploys of power.
What is this other kind of power that has no need for the worldly power we’ve been talking about? It’s hard to know what to call it, but grace is the word we use. It’s impossible to find it unless you are willing to risk some suffering and humiliation. Grace can prevent power from corrupting, but it cannot spare you from the wound power creates.
By the way, if you’re interested in where a lot of the ideas expressed in this piece come from, read, The Iliad or the Poem of Force, by the French philosopher, Simone Weil. If you want to observe it all in action, watch The Game of Thrones.