The Essence of Power

The Essence of Power

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By Leonid Savin

© The Radical Outlook

In the era of modernity, attempts were made to scientifically and clearly define the phenomenon of power and its various manifestations.

Max Weber argued that “power is the likelihood that one actor within social relations will be able to achieve his goal despite opposition” 1… In his book Economy and Society, Weber identifies three types of domination. The German sociologist writes: “There are three pure types of legitimate domination. Their legitimacy can be: 1) rational, that is, based on belief in the legality of the established order and the legality of domination exercised on the basis of this legality; 2) a traditional character, that is, it is based on an ordinary belief in the sacredness of traditions and belief in the legitimacy of an authority based on these traditions; or, finally, 3) a charismatic character, that is, it is based on outstanding manifestations of holiness or heroic strength, or exemplary personality and the order created by these manifestations (charismatic domination) ” 2 .

Jacob Burckhardt proposed a model of interaction between society and the state, based on the dynamics of social forces, from which the hierarchy of relations is built. He said that “power always comes first” 3 . At the same time, Burckhardt called the state a work of art.

Liberal philosopher Raymond Aron said: “Power is the ability to do, produce or destroy” 4 .

Less abstract definitions of power necessarily include the subject who disposes of power. “God, physical nature and man are three exceptional beings to whom philosophers could give universal supremacy and all-encompassing dominance in the world, or they could not,” asserted the Spanish philosopher of the conservative direction Donoso Cortez 5 . From this trinity, he deduces three political schools – two types of idealism (divine and human) and materialism associated with nature. Benedict Spinoza specifies how the divine can manifest itself in political power. “God does not have any special dominion over people except through those who have power” 6… Another conservative thinker from France adds that a large nation can never be ruled by government alone. He always needs someone else (something) 7 . Joseph de Maistre cites the example of Turkey, where government is carried out with the help of the Koran, as well as China, where the wise sayings and religion of Confucius are a kind of instruments of influence on the masses.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, power is more of a relationship than an entity. And a person (actor) can do little, except to desire power. Only the elemental forces of being, personified in becoming, represent the highest form of power. And its forms are different, since the forms of the will to power are different, which are philosophy, morality, metaphysics and art. They are also subdivided into negative and positive, and also have their own levels of gradation (will for freedom, will for justice, etc.).

Heidegger in relation to the will to power Nietzsche points out that for Nietzsche himself “will is nothing more than the will to power, and power is nothing more than the essence of will.” 8 Carrying out the process of deconstruction over the Nietzschean formula, Heidegger arrives at the definition that “volition itself is domination-over, breaking out of its limits; the will in itself is power, and power is in itself-constant-will (in-sich stande Wollen) ” 9 . At the same time, he notes that German idealism as such conceived of “being” as “will.” This is the Schopenhauer effect, which occurred due to the collapse of German idealism, and Nietzsche refused to participate in his desecration and further overthrow.

Summing up, he points out that power simultaneously means three phenomena. These are “power ready for action” (δύναμις), “fulfillment of domination” (ἐνέργεια) and “fulfillment” (ἐντελέχια) 10 . It should be noted that the pair ἐνέργεια καὶ δύναμις was often translated into Latin as actus et potentia, that is, “reality and possibility.”

It is interesting that Heidegger’s reflections in connection with ancient Greek terms correlate with the ancient Russian concept of power. Kolesov points out that “in Russia in the 10th century, the word“ volost ”/“ power ”is ambiguous, it means opportunity, power or the right to act; in the 11th century, “volost” (and “power”) is predominantly “possession” (land parish) … Since the end of the 11th century, this merged concept of both power and possession and the owner has been split in two, in accordance with conditions and needs expressions of feudal relations, and the parish becomes a domain, and power – force and ownership. The distribution of variants itself contains a lot of interesting things: the concrete (land ownership) is called the Russian word “volost”, the abstract (strength and power) – the Slavic “power”. A new form comes from the outside and is consecrated by the Church,11 .

But one must also remember the formula of Montesquieu, voiced in his work “On the Spirit of Laws” (1748) – “the power of the climate is the first power on earth” 12 – this definition formed the basis of geographical determinism and the further development of geopolitical ideas. If weather conditions influenced the social organization and behavior of people, this was reflected in the psychology of peoples and the political system. “The faintheartedness of the peoples of a hot climate always led them to slavery, while the courage of the peoples of a cold climate kept them free” – although this expression of Montesquieu sounds too “Manichean”, one way or another there is some truth in it.

Russian jurist Nikolai Korkunov, who considered himself to be a Western positivist school, views power as a dialectical phenomenon. “For the ruling required only the consciousness of dependence, rather than the reality of her … Power is the force due to the dependence of consciousness subservient … State power is the same force that caused the consciousness of dependence on the state” 13 .

According to the American sociologist James Coleman, “the power of an actor lies in control over significant events” 14 .

Self-control is probably just as important to power. Known and Persian Muslim scholar al-Ghazali in the form of a parable told that the wise, kind and fair rulers “their power over themselves and severity in relation to themselves were larger than in relation to other” 15 .

The Norwegian political scientist Stein Ringer pointed out that “power is something at the disposal of a certain person … Power is either there or it is not; you either have it or you don’t; it does not appear when you begin to behave in a certain way; it precedes behavior ” 16 . At the same time, he noted that, in general, the political culture, where the distribution of power takes place, is difficult to explain.

If we follow the economic theories of power, then it is necessary to mention the ideas of Friedrich von Wieser, who was one of the founders of the Austrian school of economics. He rejected the classical liberalism and insisted that freedom must hold within an ordered system of 17 . Although Wieser emphasized the importance of the role of entrepreneurs in the economic life of the state, whom he compared with heroic personalities, nevertheless his concept focuses on a systems approach.

This is fundamentally different from Thomas Hobbes’s proposal in his Leviathan.

If there is no one, universally recognized definition of power, can we say that power should function in the same way everywhere? Even in liberal societies of a similar cultural and historical type, there are different types of government – monarchical in Britain and republican in the United States.

In addition, even in one country, attempts were made to separate the methods of using power. So, there were soft concept in the United States, hard, smart, sharp, and adhesive strength of 18 . Although Joseph Nye’s concept of smart power is not original, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset expressed this idea more succinctly in Spineless Spain: “To command and rule is not only to persuade or coerce someone. True dominance presupposes a complex combination of both. Moral suggestion, like material compulsion, are integral parts of any powerful action ” 19 .

In addition, it is generally accepted that there are three projections of power and influence – symbolic, structural and instrumental.

But there were also attempts to rethink power, not only in function, but also in substance. Take the concept of potestarity, for example. Since the term was coined Soviet ethnologist Julian Bromley which adhered Marxist paradigm, its definition has been soaked in an appropriate ideology – Potestarian dogosudarstvennogo organization called power inherent preclass and early class society 20… However, many modern researchers of the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America still use this term, although the area of ​​their analysis is associated with specific states. This suggests that the mechanisms for exercising power in these regions are significantly different and additional taxonomy is needed to somehow mark intertribal relations and introduce differences from the secular, modernist concepts of power that originally arose in Western Europe, but also spread to other places. where a unique overlap of traditional customs, externally introduced models (through colonial structures or postcolonial practices) and international law took place. It’s already obvious21 . Similar metamorphoses have occurred or are occurring on other continents.

But it is also necessary to take into account the fact that in the conditions of postmodernity, the authorities have changed their characteristics. Antonio Negri, referring to Foucault, said that power is never a coherent, stable, unitary entity, it is a set of “power relations” that presuppose complex historical conditions and multiple consequences: power is a field of powers 22 .

Vilfredo Pareto about a hundred years ago in his work “Transformation of Democracy” noted: “Who cares about the balance of the branches of government today? Balance between the rights of the state and the individual? Is the venerable moral state still in full health? The Hegelian state is undoubtedly a magnificent figment of fantasy, preserved for the needs of poetic or metaphysical sociology, but workers prefer more tangible matters such as higher wages, progressive taxes, shorter working weeks … ” 23

Observations of centripetal and centrifugal forces that shake and change the political unity of one country or entire regions led Pareto to the conclusion that there was some kind of social law on the rotation of elites. Perhaps for secular countries such an approach would be justified, but what to do with those states where sacred institutions of power still exist, even if they have nominal functions? In this case, there remains one more hierarchical structure, which is taken out for the processes of political transformations and perturbations.

Another Italian author, Agostino Lantsillo, in the interwar period 24, pointed out: “to adapt to these two amounts to urgent requirements, we do not know before the European nations will face the task to be both warlike and trading, democratic and militaristic … How society will in practice” 25 .

Although the twentieth century passed through the crucible of two world wars and the struggle between liberalism, communism and fascism, these remarks remain relevant today, although certain changes are noticeable in political actions and rhetoric. Representatives of the left movements are no longer fighting for the rights of workers, but are in favor of legalizing drugs and same-sex marriage. In turn, the right in many countries serves the interests of the patron states, and not their own people.

It seems that a suitable stable model has not yet been developed, which could be universal for different countries and peoples, but did not represent a rigid template, but a set of possibilities with such limitations that are already inherent in political associations with their ancient or relatively young cultures.

Although the first steps in this direction are underway. Interesting theories and philosophical insights slip through the works of various authors – some of them belong to the Western political tradition, while others represent the peoples of other regions of the world.


Leonid Savin is a Russian geopolitical Expert and the deputy head chief of the International Eurasia Movement


1 Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. The Free Press and the Falcon’s Bring Press, 1947, p. 152.

2 Weber M. Types of domination // Weber M. Economy and society.

3 Burckhardt J. Force and Freedom Reflections on History. NY, 1943, p. 109.

4 Raymond Aron. Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations, Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1973, p. 47.

5 Cortez, Juan Donoso. Compositions. Saint Petersburg: Vladimir Dal, 2006, p. 387.

6 Spinoza B. A short treatise on God, man and his happiness; Theological and political treatise. Kharkiv: Folio, 2000, p. 357.

7 Mestre, Joseph de. Compositions. SPb .: Vladimir Dal, 2007, p. 40.

8 Martin Heidegger. Nietzsche. T. 1.SPb .: Vladimir Dal, 2006, p. 39

9 Ibid, pp. 43–44.

10 Ibid., Pp. 65-66.

11 Kolesov V.V. Ancient Russia: heritage in the word. The world of man. St. Petersburg: Faculty of Philology, St. Petersburg State University, 2000, p. 276.

12 Montesquieu C. On the spirit of laws

13 Korkunov N.M. Russian State Law, T. 1.SPb: 1901, p. 24

14 Coleman JS Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 133.


16 Ringer, Stein. The people of the devils. Democratic Leaders and the Problem of Obedience. M .: Publishing house Delo, 2016, p. 89.

17 Wieser, Friedrich von. Das Gesetz der Macht, 1926.

18 Armitage, Richard L. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. CSIS Commission on Smart Power: a smarter, more secure America, Washington, CSIS Press, 2007; Mead, Walter Russell. Power, Terror, Peace, and War. America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

19 Ortega y Gasset H. Rise of the masses. M .: OOO AST, 2001, p. 278.

20 Bromley Yu. V. Essays on the theory of ethnos. Moscow: Nauka, 1983.

21 Geveling L. V. Contours of the transforming power // Modern Africa. Metamorphoses of political power / Otv. ed. A. M. Vasiliev; Institute of Africa RAS. – M .: Vostochnaya literatura, 2009, p. 447.

22 Negri, Antonio. The work of the multitude and the fabric of biopolitics // Blue sofa, 2008. № 12.

23 Pareto, Wilfredo. Transformation of Democracy. M .: Territory of the future, 2011, p. 31.

24 This refers to the time between the First and Second World Wars.

25 Lanzillo A. La disfatta del socialismo: Critica della guerra e del socialismo. Liberia della Voce. Firenze, 1919, p. 270.

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The Radical Outlook

The Radical Outlook is an online news web Portal designed for in-depth news analysis from the Eurasian region and beyond. It is Founded by a geopolitical analyst Shahzada Rahim.
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