power is magic

a photo of the countryside as seen from the window of a plane. the upper third of the picture contains slowly undulating hills in misty blues and greens. the rest of the frame is a birds-eye patchwork of farms and natural features. at one time, the heavens were the domain of all-powerful, terrifying gods. now, any idiot with a couple hundred bucks can get up there and take a picture.


What are the agreements that hold society together? Currency, especially the concept of fiat money, is a big one. Unlike the gold standard, where a person’s dollar equaled a certain amount of gold, fiat money is fake. Where does the money come from? I’ve read some very complicated explanations for why we can’t simply print more money. But the government does anyway! We’ve vested in it the ability to spend more money than we have on hand. Only the federal government can do this, because they wrote the law that says they can.

In many ways, the concept of power functions like fiat money. It’s made up! It has arbitrary value that depends on the context where it’s used. My importance in one circle doesn’t always mean I’m important in other circles. In an institutional hierarchy, power can be coercive. People with power can make others carry out decisions that they know are bad or unhelpful. People with power can redirect attention or slow down progress. They can do this even when they themselves know it’s the wrong thing to do. People with power can also confer power unto another person. That person’s qualifications are sometimes scrutable, sometimes not. At least some monarchies had the good sense to declare their power came from holy authority. It’s hard to dispute power vested in a person or their lineage by a capital-g god. But there are points in history when a couple of capital-g guillotines demonstrated that no power is absolute.

We navigate structures of power and dynamics every day, everywhere. This week’s controversy is about Trump’s refusal to concede his electoral loss. People are asking themselves, “can he do that??” The real question is, “why are we letting him do that?”

A colleague and I were talking at work recently. She noticed the efforts I make to help new managers feel welcome in our halls of power. I see it as my role to do more than that. I’m trying to dispel the mysticism of management. Like money, a leader’s power only means something if we let it mean something. People are fallible and human. Power bestowed upon them by the system doesn’t make their instincts better by default. In fact, relying on power as authority can create blindspots in a person’s reasoning.

Take for example the bigger role that race and equity issues now play in many organizations. The leaders of those organizations may not be particularly experienced in these things. The skill sets for their roles may have changed, but they still hold the power. Only someone else with more power can do anything about that.

Another example involves asking who has the power to make decisions. In the public sector, decision-making doesn’t always rest with the public. Transferring decision-making to impacted communities can give them power they did not have. It gives people in need the ability to make decisions that are best for them, even if those decisions feel wrong to us.

Some people in power convince themselves that they alone have the right answer. They might believe their place in the system grants them that exclusive power. They may think that empowerment can function as a token or rubber-stamp of their plans. When I work to empower the communities I serve, I keep in mind this truth: given power and the authority to wield it, someone might act a different way than I would have. True empowerment must include giving up my ability to veto decisions I wouldn’t have made.

how do you rebalance power?

If you have power, start by finding ways to share it. Then, relinquish it. Historic racial inequities and injustices should make it clear why most power in the united states is ill-gotten.

Sustaining Community has a great post about the Spectrum of Public Participation. It’s a framework developed by the International Association of Public Participation. The framework describes actions along a gradual transition of power to the public: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower. Each action contains tangible steps used to engage the community we serve. The goal of empowerment is empowering for traditional power-holders as well! There is a burden or cost to making unpopular decisions. Instead, join the discussion as one of many people, all with unique ideas and perspectives.

These apply to both personal and professional life. Work to restore power to the masses through unions, organizing, and collective action. Support community groups and mutual aid projects. Collaborate with others to hold people in power accountable.

Power is magic. It doesn’t always make sense, though it sometimes leads to incredible things. But whether you are the magician or the audience, you have to be aware of what’s happening. Don’t forget the fact that it’s all a trick.