The power-to and the power-over

Power is an interesting subject; many writers have paid a lot of attention to it. For instance

Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, well worth reading. Or John Holloway in “Change the World without taking power” and many others.

african-cake-1Power comes in two flavours:

  • The power to do something, also called potency. Like: I have the power to make a nice cake and I have the power to invite friends over to eat it together. Or I have the power to start a hardware business. Power-to increases my options in life and increases the quality of life.july20
  • The power over, also called potestas. Like the commander has the power to order the soldiers to do something. This may be killing the enemy, or get killed or sweep the barracks floor. Or the judge has the power to send the suspect to jail. Power-over may increase the options of the one in power, but it is always at the cost of someone else. This is the type of power that is referred to in the saying: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

We need more of the power-to for everyone, this is empowerment. And we need less of the corporate-power-word-empowerment-words-presented-comic-balloon-impact-43553415power-over that infringes on our quality of life. The power-over is the type of power that rules strongly in the patriarchy, the arbitrary power that corrupts life and keeps Malawi from being developed.

Power-over is a dangerous situation that needs to be minimized and where we cannot prevent it from being needed it needs strong accountability. Look at the lawlessness under the dictatorship of Banda: women were not just being abused randomly, it was an organized system of dance camps where the women were ordered to go. And their brothers and husbands were powerless (disempowered) to do anything about it. Let alone the women themselves: under the sexist rule of Dr Banda, women were being objectified (made into objects) and had no rights they could insist on.

On the other hand the implementation of the Access-to-Information law (if we ever get it done!) will dramatically increase accountability.

These days we are still being held back by a huge overdose of arbitrary power. The judicial system is only open for those with money: they can hire a lawyer and get a case going, and even then it is far from sure that the arbitrary power from the judge will do justice. When suspected of a crime, the well-to-do have lots of options for bail-and-never-hear-from-the-case-again-because-the-file-is-misplaced, while the poor may rot in jail on remand-and-never-hear-from-the-case-again-because-the-file-is-misplaced.

We need to review our whole view of society, to curb the corrupting influence of arbitrary power by limiting power.

A policeman at a roadblock may have arbitrary power, or a civil servant behind a desk. Or a government minister, or an employer. What we need is a more egalitarian society, so the weak in society are more empowered. We need to systematize this. For instance: in every government office there should be a sign explaining the rights of the client and the rights of the employees. It needs to state what can be done for whom at what cost and in what time frame. And how to complain in case this is violated. If you want to get a passport, driver’s license, car registration, pass a roadblock with merchandise: at every roadblock there should be a big sign that states exactly what can pass under which circumstances, and what cannot. And what to do if your rights are violated. But also in police cells there should be a sign stating the rights of the arresting officer, the rights of the suspect, and what to do when these rights are being violated.

One of the big drivers of corruption is unclear regulations and procedures: this gives arbitrary power-over to the person in the office and takes away the power-to for the citizen. We need to clearly display every rule and regulation, every procedure end the time frame in which the procedure is to be completed and how to complain if this is not being done. Also (of course) how to complain if bribes, kickbacks and such are being solicited. This limits the arbitrary power-over from the corrupt and increases the power-to of you and me.


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