A Treatise on Power – Part II

As promised in A Treatise on Power: Part I: The Relationship between the Powered and the Powerless, here is a continuation of my exploration of power dynamics.

A Treatise on Power:
II. The Weakness of Force


Although naked force – the ultimate strength of the powered – physically has the ability to quell any resistance from the powerless, it is not all-powerful. Firstly, the increased energy required by the powered to suppress the contumacious ultimately limits its strength. This is because the more the powerless perceive they are on the receiving end of injustice, the greater the degree of this injustice and the greater the abruptness of the injustice (in contrast to a steadily building injustice), the greater the likelihood that the powerless will rebel (by whatever means available to them, no matter how desperate).

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s treatment of this phenomenon is refreshing:

Power viewed as illegitimate is inherently weaker because its application requires a higher input of force to achieve the desired result. Loss of soft power thus reduces hard power.

In effect, soft power (diplomacy) is positively correlated to hard power (physical strength), and mathematically speaking, the amount of soft power granted by the powerless determines the absolute maxima of hard power usable by the powered. Strategically, this has various implications. The most obvious is that the powerless’ view of legitimacy in the actions of the powered hold agency over the powered’s total strength. Another implication of this is that if the powerless were to view the authority of the powered as illegitimate during a time of imperial overextension and fatigue – historically, a situation all imperial powers have eventually found themselves in – there is an increased probability that the powerless could topple the powered.

Coming back to the point, If we look again at the antonymic ideas of the abruptness of injustice and the steady building of injustice we will find another weakness of force. First, the allegory of the boiling frog will be helpful: a frog can be boiled alive if placed in a pot of water that is heated slowly rather than thrown into a pot of boiling water. This, as the case goes, is because the frog of the first scenario will not react to gradual change while the frog of the second is forced to react due to the abruptness and severity of the change experienced. Relating this to our project we can see that man reacts to change in similar fashion.

Remember that Hitler and the Nazi party carried out its atrocities in slow incremental stages. First on April 1st of 1933 a boycott of Jewish owned shops, then in late September comes the prohibition of non-Aryans employed by the government, the so-called ‘Nuremberg Race Laws’ came in 1935, the Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in 1938 and so on until Germany ultimately hiked to the summit of Hitler’s ‘final solution.’ Remember also that while Dachau opened in March of 1933, at that early stage the concentration camp had the pretense of rounding up ‘communists’ and other ‘dissenters’ in response to the Reichstag fire. And even after more than 30,000 Jewish men were taken to that and other concentration camps after the Kristallnacht, nearly all were released within three months upon condition that they leave Germany.

The point here is that neither on Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in January of 1933, nor his co-option of power as the ‘Führer ‘ in August of 1934 were followed by an explicit public address to the Jews of Germany explaining to them exactly what was in store. If this was the case, the water clearly would have been perceived as in a boiling-state, and the resistance of Jews in Germany (and elsewhere) would have been practically inevitable. This is the difference between abrupt injustice and a steady building of injustice.

Some may view the aforementioned more as a ‘condition’ of power rather than a weakness of force in the strict sense. To see the weakness of force in this case more clearly we will start by employing the recollections of Derrick Jensen: “The Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a higher rate of survival than those who went along.” It is here that we can begin to see the essence of what limits force – the difference between those who rebelled and those who went along was their feeling of hope, which is susceptible to change upon the receipt of new information. Employing Jensen’s definition of hope – a longing for a future condition over which one has no agency – it is apparent that those Jews who rebelled understood the true face of Nazism (due to personal knowledge of previous deportations and rumors of death camps – pointing to the reality of their situation) and that their trust of hope within Hitler’s Germany would lead to their death. Those who failed to rebel held out an eventual-optimistic view of their regime, their situation: that there in fact was no way to gain agency over their own future… that their fate was not that of inescapable danger… that their future condition would, overall, turn out okay.

The understanding by the powered that there exists the potential of a Warsaw ghetto uprising and its domino effects (e.g. the Bialystok and Minsk ghetto uprisings, the Treblinka and Sobibor killing center uprisings) are what alter the action of force. This is what prohibits a Hitler from adopting a policy of abrupt injustice (both for the potential of uprising and for the potential of unwanted premature attention of other actors) – what fundamentally is the weakness of force.

A careful survey of history will undoubtedly reveal a plenty of accounts where this weakness of force alters the actions of the powered. For instance, the conquest of North America is pregnant with example. What, underneath it all, is the point of a ‘treaty’ between colonizer and native inhabitant outside of an obfuscation device akin to the German’s linguistic device of ‘showers’ as opposed to ‘death vaults’? Some may say ‘legal right’ but to that I respond: the same ‘legal right’ afforded to blacks subjected to the kangaroo courts of the Jim Crow era? I will concede that the fact is there is the possibility for the descendants of a nearly exterminated people to use these ‘treaties’ in a legal setting to gain some bastardized semblance of ‘justice’ hundreds of years after the fact, but to the originators, to the drafters of those treaties, there was no such intention.

The true intention was to feign recompense, regroup (logistically, militarily, politically) and abate the possibility of the Warsaw ghetto uprising effect. In the same vein as our unrealized Hitler communiqué to the Jewish people of Germany, if Thomas Jefferson sent runners and translators to the far West announcing to all Native American tribes both his unsqueamishness with breaking ‘treaties’ (as in his use of the Army to forcibly expel Natives from Georgia), and his plans of forced cultural, religious and economic assimilation, the young European nation potentially would have had a unified Native front to contend with. And, due to his projects more savage nature, in the case of Andrew Jackson the potentiality of a unified Native front certainly would have been greater.

Turning our sights to the Caribbean of the late 18th century, the story of Saint Domingue – ultimately to become Haiti – is also an example of the weakness of force. The trigger for uprising and eventual self-liberation of the Haitian slaves was new information from the Republic of France regarding the revolutions taking place there and their “Déclaration des Droits de L’homme”. The highway of the ocean was alive with ships at that time and when this information reached the minds of Toussaint L’Ouverture and others, their Jensenian hope was transformed into a new entity – an active will. Instead of making due with a longed-for future which one has no agency over, the time had come to actively grasp personal destiny with their own hands – regardless of the consequences.

It is plain that the story of the Haitian revolution also involves the fear of the Warsaw ghetto uprising effect, but for us it is the extent of this fear that is of importance. As the former plantation owners of Saint Domingue fled from their former forced labor camps, other colonies made a concerted effort to disallow their entry in the fear that the simple recanting of their ‘misfortune’ would reveal the fact that black slaves had successfully revolted, took control of their affairs and repelled the greatest white armies of the day – a set of facts that would almost certainly lead to the spread of the ‘contagion of liberté’.

Finally, the weakness of force is finely encapsulated, of all places, in the master/slave driven world of BDSM. In BDSM one partner known as the Submissive relinquishes control, through their own volition, to the dominant partner(s) known as the dom, or Master. During a typical session of ‘play,’ the dom(s) will have their way with the sub(s) through sexual acts, acts of humiliation, inflicting pain via whipping, flogging, etc. or any combination of the above. As words like ‘no’ or ‘stop’, or general cries could potentially not mean what they typically would mean in a normal situation, before the play begins, a ‘safe word’ is established (say, ‘spinach’) and the use of it by the sub will mean the end of the ‘play session’. What is interesting about BDSM is that while the Submissive individual is typically viewed as powerless while the Master is viewed as in total control, it is in fact the sub who holds ultimate power: the power to end the play session. This is essentially what we saw in The Relationship between the Powered and the Powerless; this is an element of the weakness of force.

6 thoughts on “A Treatise on Power – Part II

  1. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  2. Jacques, in response to the BDSM situation (though I think it's an interesting perspective), the safe word only has control if the Dom decides to heed it. If a submissive were tied and being whipped, the Dom could just keep whipping til death. I suppose it's in violation of their best interests (continuation of play, staying within legal constraints, etc.), but it's still an option that can only voluntarily be relinquished by the Dom.

    Maybe something to think about, I don't know.

  3. I would appreciate more visual materials, to make your blog more attractive, but your writing style really compensates it. But there is always place for improvement

  4. Oh my goodness! an incredible article dude. Thank you However I’m experiencing situation with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anybody getting equivalent rss downside? Anybody who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

  5. You could certainly see your enthusiasm in the work you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.

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