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Key Theme Three: Uses and Abuses of Power

Why don't we live in a world where all human beings are equally powerful, individuals cannot control the actions of one another, and no nation can dominate any other? We all know that the President of the United States is much more powerful than individual citizens, heads of corporations are more powerful than employees, and the members of public school boards are more powerful than teachers. Differences in power are present at many different levels of human society: between individuals, between states, between social classes. Indeed, power is all around us.

Changing power relations have been one of the central themes of world history. Think how much of the history you have read is about monarchs and peasants, owners and slaves, empires and colonies, one race dominating another, or men dominating women. Teachers and their students may ask many critical questions about power:

  • Was power always present in human society? If so, why? If not, how was power created?
  • Why are differences in power so enormous in the modern world?
  • How do the powerful hold on to their power?
  • Could inequalities of power be eliminated? Should they be?
  • Do the weak always have to tolerate the power of the strong? Could the weak survive without the strong, or the other way around?
  • Are people bound to abuse power? (The English historian Lord Acton wrote: "All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.")

Power relationships are present in many animal communities. For example, the term, 'pecking order' comes from the fact that a power hierarchy always exists in a flock of chickens. Observers of chimpanzee communities have found that the members engage in much political activity. Dominant chimps spend a lot of time maintaining the support of their allies and disciplining their opponents. But their power is never secure, and they are always vulnerable to challenge from below. Is it significant that among one species of chimpanzees mainly males engage in such activities? Is the urge for power therefore mainly a male characteristic? On the other hand, among another chimp species, females seem to engage in equally complex political games.

Like chimps, we are social animals. All humans live in communities of some kind. Perhaps this is enough to explain why power relations always seem to be part of social life. But how humans exercise power, and the consequences of doing it, vary greatly from one community and historical period to another.

For most of history, people lived in tiny, family-like communities that moved periodically during the year. Power relationships were probably experienced as personal relationships, as they still are in families today. Many forms of power were built into the structure of the family so that as children grew up, they found themselves fitted into already established power relationships. Parents normally had power over children, and older members of the community over younger ones. Some individuals enjoyed temporary authority because of special skills. For example, on an expedition to gather a rare food plant, those who knew most about the plant were likely to lead the group. Power seems always to have been a natural part of family and personal relations. That does not mean that its effects were necessarily benevolent. Power relations could be extremely violent, as they sometimes are in families today.

When agriculture began to emerge about 10,000 years ago, human communities started to grow. In some regions, people began to live in larger, denser settlements. In these communities--the earliest villages, towns, and cities--power relationships were transformed. Why? In large communities new types of problems appeared, and many occasions arose when people needed to act collectively. To do that they had to have leaders, managers, or organizers, which meant that ordinary people had to surrender some authority to leaders. People needed to act together when under attack, to worship the gods together to ensure good harvests, and to labor together to build a city temple or repair irrigation canals. Organizing and coordinating the work of hundreds or even thousands of people required political, religious, and military leaders. If the leaders were honest and effective, everyone benefited.

But how were leaders selected? Most of the time, they probably emerged quite naturally. Within families, the older members normally had more authority. The same principle usually applied in groups larger than families. Often whole communities thought of themselves as members of the same ancestral family. And those claiming descent from the senior lines of the ancestral families often enjoyed higher status, just as older members of a living family claim seniority over junior members. In this way, the community sometimes regarded particular families as being the "natural" leaders.

Communities have also chosen leaders because of their particular skills, perhaps as fighters, peace-makers, alliance builders, or intermediaries between the community and the gods. Anthropologists have described societies whose leaders are called "big men" (almost invariably men, not women). These leaders collect valued goods from their family and friends, and then give them away in large feasts. Among Indian societies of northwestern North America they call this process a "potlatch."

In a modern economy this behavior might seem ridiculous, but its purpose is to create obligations. Eventually, the big man can call in these debts by demanding support from those who attended his feasts. By creating alliances in this way, the big man can sometimes accumulate enough influence and prestige to acquire special authority. However, in these communities, as in most small communities, power rests mainly on the consent of those who are ruled. If leaders fail to lead effectively or retain their prestige, they can be overthrown.

About 6,000 years ago, the state began to emerge. The state is a particular form of human organization, distinguishable, for example, from a hunter-gatherer band, a village community, or an ethnic group. The concept of the "state" is closely connected to the concept of "government," but the two terms do not mean exactly the same thing.

  • State: A population that inhabits a territory and that has a central governing authority. A state is assumed to possess sovereignty, which means that it is politically independent of other states and recognizes no ruling authority above itself. In world history states have varied greatly in size and organization. Monarchies, oligarchies, republics, and empires are important types of states, all meeting the basic definition.
  • Government: The group of people and system of institutions that rules, administers, and regulates the state. The elements of central government typically include a supreme ruler or ruling group, laws, courts, councils or legislatures, bureaucracies, police, and armies.

States that emerged in premodern times had two notable characteristics:

  • They were usually larger than communities held together by the consent of their members. While some early states were made up of just one city and surrounding agricultural land (city-state), much larger states, even giant empires, eventually appeared. One of the earliest large states arose more than 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia in Southwest Asia. There, a king named Sargon ruled over a number of city-states that covered a large area of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. An even more spectacular example of a large state was the Achaemenid empire centered on Persia. It arose about 2,500 years ago to rule millions of people and incorporate hundreds of cities and towns stretching from Turkey to Afghanistan.
  • The governments of states separated themselves out from the people over whom they ruled, and they acquired the ability to coerce (force) people to do things they might not otherwise wish to do. States used the agrarian and other resources they controlled to pay armed gangs, police, or armies. These bodies might protect or defend the population but also exercised coercion to control and manage it. States sometimes used brutal force against their own subjects or citizens. The power of coercion was in fact the normal condition of the large states of Afroeurasia and the Americas.

The state involved a hierarchy of power in which everyone knew his and her place. From kings, governors, generals, and tax collectors to local chiefs, peasants, slaves, prisoners, and beggars, everyone from the top of the pyramid to the bottom knew who had more power and who had less, who commanded and who obeyed. People tended to accept their position in the pyramid partly because they were forced to, but also because knowing one's place carried certain advantages, even for people at the bottom levels. Those benefits might include protection against invaders, access to roads, upkeep of irrigation systems, or law and order in the market place. In addition, religious and government authorities were usually closely allied. The religious leaders typically taught people that they had a moral duty to obey those above them in the hierarchy.

In the premodern era, states did not have the communications systems or organizational skills required to interfere much in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, especially people who lived far from the capital city. In the provinces and the countryside, most individuals dealt primarily with local chiefs, judges, and other power holders, and they rarely encountered officials from the capital.

The Oba, or ruler, of the West African kingdom of Benin. In this bronze plaque from the 16th century, the powerful Oba is surrounded by attendants.

Also, hunter-gatherers or small communities of farmers or pastoralists still occupied significant areas of the world. Those societies might only rarely encounter powerful officials or armies of big states.

In modern times, and especially in the last two centuries, all this has changed. Modern states now dominate the entire world. Fewer than 200 formally sovereign states (almost all of them voting members of the United Nations) have replaced the hundreds or thousands of different power groups that until recently shared the planet.

The states of today embrace almost all of the world's inhabitants. They are also much more powerful than earlier states, intervening much more readily in the daily aspects of people's lives. This is partly because modern states have access to sophisticated technologies of communication, transport, propaganda, and social control.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many states have used wealth and technology to benefit their populations in numerous ways. Others have used their resources mainly to benefit a small ruling group. Political scientists have classified as totalitarian such oppressive authoritarian states as Germany under the Nazis, Russia under Stalin, and China under Mao Zedong . This means that these states have aimed to eliminate all levels of organized power or protection between the central government, dominated by a few, and everyone else in the society.

The task of organizing and managing states, even small ones, is extremely complicated. We most respect those states that govern, keep order, and strive for economic prosperity in ways that involve the active participation of the population and that tap its skills, knowledge, and energy. States with genuine democratic institutions are most likely to make sure that the interests of the government and the general population are on the whole in agreement. And because of this, these states are more likely to survive over the long run than those that alienate the people they rule.

Democratic Government in Britain The House of Commons in Session

Even in states that appear thoroughly undemocratic, total coercion is not possible. Wherever we investigate power relations in world history we find the same paradox: power often seems to rest on force, but it never rests only on force. Even in agrarian times, states big or small rested their authority on varying combinations of consent and coercion. Negotiations, sometimes hidden from public view, have always gone on between rulers and ruled.

The most skillful rulers have always understood that it is easier to rule a contented population than a discontented one. And the population knows that an authoritarian state can provide various services, protections, and opportunities. Notice that even the most ruthless dictators usually call themselves president, hold presidential elections (just one candidate!), and rule theoretically under constitutions, all to make themselves appear legitimate (lawful) in the eyes of their people and the world.

Why Do We Need to Understand This Key Theme?

  • In the huge, and complicated societies of the modern world, every thing we do is affected by powerful individuals and groups: presidents, politicians, bankers, teachers, pastors, police, gang leaders, and so on. To deal with power we have to understand how power evolved in history, and why we live in the midst of so many powerful institutions and people.
  • Power is connected closely to our ideas about right and wrong. Is the government using its powers appropriately? Is it ever right to overthrow a government that is unjust? If I am wronged, should I rely on the government to defend me or try to take justice into my own hands? Many of today's students will grow up to exercise power as soldiers, executives, managers, parents, or educators. Learning how power has been used in the past helps us consider how people today ought to use power justly and compassionately.
  • We are all shaped by relationships of power. The freedoms, obligations, and controls we have in daily life all depend on our connections to the power of other individuals and groups. For typical middle or high school students, the power of parents, friends, teachers, employers, police, and government officials all affect how we think and act. Our ethnicity, sex, age, occupation, wealth, education, and state of health can all affect the degrees of power we have. In some ways power relationships in today's world are similar to those found thousands of years ago. In other ways, they are very different. Investigating the uses, abuses, and changing forms of power over the millennia can help us grasp how power may both limit and enrich our lives.
  • Today, all humans (with tiny exceptions) live within the frontiers of sovereign states. States have central governments, which exercise great power over their citizens whether they are democracies or dictatorships, big countries or small. In world history governments have exerted power in many different ways, sometimes benefiting their subjects or citizens, sometimes restricting or endangering them. We must set the history of states and their governments in broad historical perspective to understand how they work in our lives today.
  • Bill Gates

    Bill Gates of Microsoft Corporation. He is one of the most powerful business leaders in the world.

    Because we live in the computer age, we understand that possessing and controlling information is a way of exerting power. States, corporations, interest groups, universities, and other holders of power both control and disseminate floods of valuable information. Governments and other power groups have always had an interest in managing the flow of news and knowledge. Understanding the complex relationship between information and power in history will help citizens consider more carefully the sources, accuracy, and validity of information they receive.






Questions for Classrooms

Theme 3 Diagram


Landscape and Closeup Teaching Units that Emphasize Key Theme 3:

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