I often talk here about power, motivations and pleasures surrounding power, and the role they play in the psycho-politics of patriarchy, capitalism, and other such forces of oppression. I sometimes get a desire to try and systematise this, or a feeling that there’s the potential here for something similar to economics in its rigour (which is of course not all that rigorous). As a gesture in that direction, I started thinking about what sort of ‘laws of motion’ might be involved in such a ‘mechanics of power’.
A few sprang to my mind, but I’d be very interested in hearing thoughts or suggestions in comments. So I pose the question: if power is the subject of politics, and if the psychology of power is therefore the key political part of psychology, what could be the ‘axioms’, ‘theorems’, and ‘hypotheses’ of this study?
(of course I haven’t defined exactly what I mean by ‘power’, because it might be complex and potentially it’s more interesting to see how others define it)
So my thoughts were:
Reaction: A common response to experiencing powerlessness is to increase the desire to become powerful, so as to avoid the repeat of such a situation. This however requires some perceived route towards such power – if none is found, some other response is needed.
Displacement: The desire to exert power over one target can be partially satisfied by exerting power over a different target.
Reactive Displacement: Thus, when someone is subjugated, they will tend to seek an even weaker target over whom they can be dominant.
The Sadistic Shift: power can be expressed both benevolently, as the power to please and benefit people, and malevolently, as the power to hurt and injure people. But benevolent power is ambiguous – you’re never sure if you’re ‘in control’ or if the object of your power is actually just ‘letting you’ act because it benefits them. Hurting them makes this much more definite, since it’s assumed they would resist if they were able to.
Thus, power which has previously been confident and secure, but which is now threatened or insecure, will tend to shift from being more paternalistic to being more sadistic.
The Ascetic Division: since it is the ‘self’ that exercises power, and the perceived boundaries of ‘the self’ are very flexible, the desire for power can be satisfied by identifying part of one’s own organism – certain desires or tendencies, or one’s own body – as something to subjugate. This is unpleasant but can considered preferable if there is no external target to subjugate.
Thus, when the desire for power is disproportionate to opportunities for exercising power, splits will tend to be engineered within the self.
Vicarious Triumph. Again, since the perceived boundaries of the self are flexible, people can extend their identification to others. When they extend this identification to the more powerful, they can share in the gratification of that power.
Thus, when the desire for power is disproportionate to opportunities for exercising power, people will tend to identify with and become devoted to more powerful figures.
Corollorary: sometimes vicarious triumph and asceticism go together, when the more power external force can be identified with an internal component of the person and against another component (e.g. I identify with the rulers of Scotland, and suppress un-patriotic or un-Scottish parts of my own psyche on behalf of my ‘Scottish patriot self’).