The Three Types of Power

An excerpt from the book "Truth or Dare" by Starhawk

The conflicts brewing today are only superficially questions of who will take power. Underneath is a deeper struggle: to change the nature of the power in which our society is rooted. The root question is, How do we define the world? For it is an old magical secret that the way we define reality shapes reality. Name a thing and you invoke it. If we call the world nonliving, we will surely kill her. But when we name the world alive, we begin to bring her back to life.

Reality, of course, shapes and defines us. Only when we know how we have been shaped by the structures of power in which we live can we become shapers. A psychology of liberation can become our athame, our Witch's knife, the tool of magic that corresponds with the East, the element air: mind, clarity, vision. It is the knowledge and insight we need to carve out our own freedom.

Witches have a saying: "Where there's fear, there's power." It also works backward: "Where there's power, there's fear." We are afraid to look at power because one of the deepest prohibitions is that against seeing how power operates. Psychoanalyst Alice Miller, in her analysis of what she calls "poisonous pedagogy," shows "the overriding importance of our early conditioning to be obedient and dependent and to suppress our feelings." "The more or less conscious goal of adults in rearing infants is to make sure they will never find out later in life that they were trained not to become aware of how they were manipulated." We are afraid of the pain of seeing how deeply we have been shaped by systems of control.

Those systems and that power are built of the earth's charred bones and cemented with her stripped flesh. In this chapter, I will explore three types of power: power-over, power-from-within, and power-with. Power-over is linked to domination and control; power-from-within is linked to the mysteries that awaken our deepest abilities and potential. Power-with is social power, the influence we wield among equals.

Power-over comes from the consciousness I have termed estrangement: the view of the world as made up of atomized, nonliving parts, mechanically interacting, valued not for what they inherently are but only in relation to some outside standard. It is the consciousness modeled on the God who stands outside the world, outside nature, who must be appeased, placated, feared, and above all, obeyed. For, as we will see in chapter 2, power-over is ultimately born of war and the structures, social and intrapsychic, necessary to sustain mass, organized warfare. Having reshaped culture in a martial image, the institutions and ideologies of power-over perpetuate war so that it becomes a chronic human condition.

We live embedded in systems of power-over and are indoctrinated into them, often from birth. In its clearest form, power-over is the power of the prison guard, of the gun, power that is ultimately backed by force. Power-over enables one individual or group to make the decisions that affect others, and to enforce control.

Violence and control can take many forms. Power-over shapes every institution of our society. This power is wielded in the workplace, in the schools, in the courts, in the doctor's office. It may rule with weapons that are physical or by controlling the resources we need to live: money, food, medical care; or by controlling more subtle resources: information, approval, love. We are so accustomed to power-over, so steeped in its language and its implicit threats, that we often become aware of its functioning only when we see its extreme manifestations. For we have been shaped in its institutions, so that the insides of our minds resemble the battlefield and the jail.

In the Livermore action described in the opening of this chapter, we were relying on a different principle of power, one that I call power-from-within, or empowerment. The root of the word power means to be able. We were, acting as if we were able to protect our friend. Our strength came not from weapons, but from our willingness to act.

Power-from-within is akin to the sense of mastery we develop as young children with each new unfolding ability: the exhilaration of standing erect, of walking, of speaking the magic words that convey our needs and thoughts.

But power-from-within is also akin to something deeper. It arises from our sense of connection, our bonding with other human beings, and with the environment.

Although power-over rules the systems we live in, power-from-within sustains our lives. We can feel that power in acts of creation and connection, in planting, building, writing, cleaning, healing, soothing, playing, singing, making love. We can feel it in acting together with others to oppose control.

A third aspect of power was also present in the jail at Camp Parks. We could call it power-with, or influence: the power of a strong individual in a group of equals, the power not to command, but to suggest and be listened to, to begin something and see it happen. The source of power-with is the willingness of others to listen to our ideas. We could call that willingness 'respect', not for a role, but for each unique person. We joined in the chanting begun by one woman in the Jail because we respected her inspiration. Her idea felt right to us. She had no authority to command, but acted as a channel to focus and direct the will of the group.

In the dominant culture, power-with has become confused with power-over. When we attempt to create new structures that do not depend upon hierarchy for cohesion, we need to recognize power-with, so that we can work with it, share and spread, and also beware of it. For like the Witch's knife, the athame, power-with is double-bladed. It can be the seedbed of empowerment, but it can also spawn oppression. No group can function without such power, but within a group influence can too easily become authority.