The Four Types of Power

By the power of Crom!

There are at least four words missing from the English language; words that could more accurately describe the general concept of “power.”  There are different types of power, and they are radically different.

Imagine two axes that cross to form a grid.  The top two quadrants will refer to coercive power, or “power over.”  This is power accumulated via violence, the threat of violence, or controlling or withholding resources needed for survival (water, food, shelter).  The bottom two quadrants contain all forms of non-coercive power, or “power to.”  This kind of power is gained by mastering skills, gaining knowledge, creating new things and retaining ownership over them, etc.

Now consider the left and right sides of the vertical axis.  On the right side we can place “zero-sum” forms of power.  If you acquire this kind of power, you take that power away from someone else.  For example, if you acquire market share in a closed market, you’re taking that business (or those eyeballs) away from a competitor.  Another example of zero-sum power is the power of a winning sports team.  Only one team will win the league in any given season, and gain all the power that goes along with winning (money, fame, respect, better players, etc.).  When you win, someone else loses.

Niccolò Machiavelli

Books like Machiavelli’s The Prince and Greene & Ellfers 48 Laws of Power deal with the ins and outs of accumulating zero-sum power (including zero-sum coercive power).  I find these kinds of books to be mildly interesting at best, and repulsive at worst.  I like winning as much as anybody, but wanting to “crush your enemy” is just sadistic.  A player focused solely on winning a zero sum game puts winning above fair play and high ideals, and is willing to use deception, treachery, and kowtowing to get their way.  Of course these techniques work, but when people use them they lose their potential for true greatness, for lifting up the human species.

On the left side of the vertical axis is non-zero-sum power.  When you gain this kind of power you do not take it away from a competitor (at least not directly). Creating a new market, learning a new skill, creating something new — these actions lead to power not only for yourself but also for others. New power is created.  Thus, non-zero-sum.

My crude chart attempting to illustrate the four power quadrants. Note that I haven't tried to position each example *within* the quadrant ... you can decide for yourself if monopolies are more tyrannical than warlords, or vice versa.

As a species, we are are vastly more powerful than we were in eons past.  We can fly around the world, we can see into space, we can understand and cure many diseases, we can feed six billion people, we can look up most of the world’s information instantaneously, and so on.  This is because we have collectively accumulated vast amounts of lower left quadrant (non-coercive, non-zero-sum) power.  I’m calling this kind of power progressive power, though it could also be labeled world-building or even visionary power.

Unfortunately, the accumulation and abuse of coercive power is just as popular as it ever was.  Non-zero-sum coercive power (upper left quadrant) is perhaps the most evil.  Imagine a corporation coming into your village, paying off the local authorities, privatizing what was once free (streams and rainwater), and then charging you more than you can afford to use what should be, by any reasonable ethical evaluation, already yours.  This kind of shit happens all the time.  It’s non-zero-sum because the assholes are coercing people in a new way, exerting a new form of power.  It’s new and improved evil.  I’ve chosen the word diabolical to describe this quadrant, because the word implies cleverness, opportunism, and creativity (in the pursuit of evil).

Personally, I’m interested in accumulating more lower left quadrant power, and helping others do the same.  I want to be able to do more, without taking away power from anybody else, and without coercing anyone.  More lower right quadrant power (more market share for my music label, for example) would also be nice, and there’s nothing ethically wrong with it (competition in a reasonably regulated market is generally non-coercive), but it’s the lower left quadrant that helps us progress as a species.

If you don’t believe in progress, let me take away your iPhone and laptop.  If you still don’t believe in progress, let me take away your running water, electricity, and modern building materials.  You’re now living in cold, dark stone hut.  Still don’t believe in progress?  Okay, now all your metal tools are gone.  Dentists don’t yet exist, so if you have a toothache we’ll knock out the rotten tooth with a rock.  When are you going to start believing in progress?  Progress = lower left quadrant power accumulation.  I’m aware that huge numbers of people still don’t have access to clean water and electricity, but the majority do (and organizations like charity:water are working on providing access to those that don’t).  If you still aren’t convinced that human beings are progressing as a species, watch this data visualization by Hans Rosling.

So how do we, both individually and as a society, accumulate more progressive power?  And perhaps more importantly, why?

One of nature's many killing machines.

The why, at least to me, is obvious.  So we can do more.  So we can understand more.  So we can, individually and collectively, have more influence over our destiny, and be less at the mercy of market bubbles, climate change, and nature’s capricious whims.  (Don’t you agree that nature is cruel and capricious?  Werner Herzog thinks so, and he has listened to a grizzly bear eat a living man.  Maybe you should listen to the same tape before making up your mind.)

We should all try to accumulate more non-coercive, non-zero-sum power so that we can become a more glorious species, so we can explore the cosmos, become maximally intelligent, become more compassionate, say goodbye to poverty and needless suffering, and generally lift ourselves up.  That’s why.

"Where can you flee? What road will you use to escape us?"

We also need lower left quadrant power to protect ourselves from the tyrants, sociopaths, and assholes, who will most likely always exist and will never give up their relentless reign of terror from the upper quadrants, constantly attempting to accumulate more “power over” via violence, the threat of violence, monopolistic market control, deception, blackmail, and manipulative control of others.  These assholes used to control the entire world, but these days they are restricted to Mexican narco-gangs, isolated African dictatorial states, certain banking institutions, and the like.  Though I will concede that Jarvis Cocker has a point, you have to compare the world today to the days of the vast Mongolian empire, when your city-state might receive a message like this.

Some of these questions were debated in response to Robert Wright’s book Nonzero.  While I can’t contest the fact that today’s world contains weapons capable of wreaking horrific destruction (a nuclear bomb has more potential coercive power than a broadsword), I stand by my statement that the sociopathic tyrants of the world wield less relative power than they did in eras past.  Overall, non-coercive power is beating out coercive power.

In my next post I’ll tackle the question of how we can accumulate more non-coercive power (both as individuals, and as communities).

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16 responses to “The Four Types of Power

  1. awesome.
    did you ever see this?

    Like what they say about needing to find a healthier habit with which to replace a bad habit– I feel there’s an opportunity to get people currently in the upper quadrants to switch to the lower quadrants of power, to use your (excellent) model.. Relatedly, i was thinking about how we could replace the energy of _conflict_ (war, bigotry) with the energy of _contrast_, which seems like it could slip into the same frequency– feed the same hungers.

    How could we engineer a massive switch over, aka The Big Hiccup? …Looking forward to your follow-up post!

  2. I hadn’t seen your post — same idea!

    Can people switch quadrants? I wonder if most sociopathic/zero-conscience types can be reformed, or if sequestering them into irrelevance isn’t the better approach.

    Corporate charter reform seems like a potentially effective vector for reform and progress. If corporate law did not *require* a public corporation to consider investor bottom line above all other considerations (environment, public health, worker health, etc.) then maybe ethical types would be more attracted to CEO positions (and amoral, ruthless characters less so).

    But maybe you’re right … maybe the hunger/lust for power that some people feel (and resort to coercion to satisfy) can be sublimated into competition and wealth building pursuits. But how?

  3. Nathanael Merlin

    I like this as well. I hadn’t thought about power that way. I especially like the idea of working together to produce non-zero-sum power.

    I would like to point out that there are some positive things that are not as meaningful in a non-zero-sum arena. One person giving up one of their kidney’s to someone else is one example. That sacrifice doesn’t mean as much when you are just taking time to make an artificial kidney ( not that there are any but maybe there will be) . The artificial kidney will save more lives but is not emotionally as a healthy human being giving up their kidney for another.

    I disagree with the idea that sociopaths can’t be reformed. Anyone can change, they just need support and a willingness to try. And Ariana’s idea of moving that energy in another direction is wonderful. It would be interesting to find out what happens with sociopaths who work towards helping the poor, maybe through action they could be reformed?

    Has nothing to do with this article but thanks JD for taking your time to come to our class and share your experience and wisdom with us.

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  14. Cool article. I think grasping non-zero-sumness helps get your head around the “abundance mentality” idea that pops up in places.

    Wanted to run an idea by you I’ve been toying with: many (not all) zero-sum games (I mean the term broadly) seem to be situated within a non-zero-sum game.

    For example: a game of chess with a friend has a zero-sum outcome (one of us loses, or draws the game) but is situated within the non-zero-sum goal of having fun. We could both have fun or neither have fun which is sometimes independent of the outcome of the game. If we don’t have fun (eg if my friend creams me every time), then that’s going to rapidly stop me from playing again. This leads to a sort of “fair play” rule which you can even find amongst lab rats. Juvenille rats like to wrestle and a bigger rat will let the smaller rat win about 30% of the time so that they’ll keep wrestling, even though the bigger rat could win 100% of the time.

    Another example that is a little more related to your post: imagine a scene on the African Savanna. A mid-ranked baboon has spent most of a day tracking a bushbaby. The baboon finally ran it down and it’s about to get three days calories in thirty minutes. Suddenly, the highest ranking male walks by 10 feet away and the mid-level baboon picks up and leaves. Just leaves. No fight, no muss. The highest ranking male didn’t even indicate an interest in the kill. This scenerio was described by Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky.

    Why would the animal even bother doing that? Clearly, the zero-sum heirarchy is extremely unfair and the hunter doesn’t get to keep his hard-earned supper. Why would animals conform to it at all? Well, there’s an answer in the periods when hierarchies are shifting, or before hierarchies form: it’s hell on Earth. In stable hierarchies most disputes are handled non-violently and no one gets stressed. The most you get is baring of teeth, hair raising and posturing. Very, very rarely does a disagreement progress to violence and it does that most often when two males are about to swap ranks due to age, illness, loss of social backing, whatever. A fight in the wilderness is really costly and a scratch can lead to an infection and death. Baboon fangs are longer and sharper than tiger’s.

    In an unstable hierarchy, that is, without the zero-sum game, there’s way more violence cause everyone has to fight everyone for every little thing, and everyone pays the price in stress-related issues even if they’re not fighting.

    BTW, if you’re in the mood for a great book that really helped me to understand human psychology better, check out “Chimpanzee Politics” by Franz De Waal. It helped me to understand the last great taboo of human beings–dominance hierarchy status. I mean that in a very primate sense. When you go out to dinner with some friends, someone’s vote is somehow final about dessert or leaving or whatever. Everyone picks up on it instinctively but no one talks about it. Most of the books you mentioned you have an instinctive dislike for relate to gaining dominance hierarchy status.

    Whoops, longer than I thought. Thoughts?

    • Absolutely — a situation is zero-sum or not depending on your perspective. As a music producer I “play” the sales charts and sometimes win and sometimes lose. On the other hand I always win because I get to write and release electronic dance music — the activity itself brings me great pleasure.

      Dominance hierarchy in humans is a little different because there is a meta-behavioral level via which non-verbal dominance cues can be manipulated if you’re aware of them. If I’m in conversation with a “natural alpha” who is bigger/stronger/higher status than me, I can still choose to “act alpha” by withholding eye contact while they are speaking, holding eye contact while I am speaking, interrupting, disallowing interruptions by continuing to speak through attempted interruptions, controlling timing, not smiling or “mouth only” smiling, and so forth. (This is all douche-baggy behavior and I only engage in it when someone is being obnoxious and trying to dominate me — defensively, in other words.)

      Still, we are apes! Thanks for the book recommendation.

  15. To finish my second example: the non-zero-sum game that everyone gains by engaging in is relative peace and lack of stress/violence, even though in the particular zero-sum game, there will be losers.

    Revolutions/protests are often a way for some portion of the population to say, “we’re not playing this game anymore, it’s just too unfair”.

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