Mechanics of power

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Political power -- meaning power over other people, not necessarily exercised via government or any legitimate authority -- is at the heart of pretty much every social or large-scale problem on Earth today, yet as far as we are aware there has been no formal study of how it works.

There seem to be a lot of popular misconceptions about how power is created and maintained. Some free-marketeers, for instance, express a set of beliefs that seem to imbue government with an exclusive or near-exclusive ability to create power:

  • Without government, political power derives solely from reputation.
  • Most coercion originates from government.
  • Government has a monopoly on force.
  • A society without government would not have extreme wealth or power inequality.
  • In a society without government, any entity that acted malevolently would become unprofitable and thereby disempowered.

More obviously, many evangelicals believe that political power derives ultimately from the wishes of a mythical, super-powerful being -- or who use popular belief in this being (which they encourage) to coerce others.

Neither of these is true -- although the evangelical leaders at least seem to have a fairly clear (if not necessarily articulate) understanding of a handful of powerful methods for creating and maintaining power.

The basic question we are trying to answer here is: how does power work?

Is there some core element to it, or is it just a collection of methodologies to be used opportunistically? If the latter, then a catalog of those methodologies and some documentation of their usage would seem to be in order. If the former, then a better understanding of how each methodology is related to the core would also seem to be in order.


  • Why do people seek power?
  • Why hasn't more been written about this?
  • What are some historical examples of power-creation?
  • What are some modern examples of power-creation?


To be checked: Mongol hordes exercised power over their subjugated villages by threatening extreme retribution -- killing not just the perpetrator, but often their family or entire village -- for even small infractions. Society was sharply divided into the peasantry (who did the work and received the punishments) and the nobility (who received most of the benefits and did most of the punishing).

This argument needs some refinement and generalization: Political power comes from technology


  • 2014-10-23 The Police Are Still Out of Control (h/t) by Frank Serpico
    • powermongers are righteously indignant when their harmful activities are exposed and/or stopped
      • "If it wasn’t for that fuckin' Serpico, I coulda been a millionaire today."
      • some may take retribution against whistleblowers
      • others may socially ostracize whistleblowers, even if this allows the whistleblower to come to harm
        • "If I knew it was him, I would have left him there to bleed to death."
      • tentatively: a powermonger may have supporters who have not done an independent ethical evaluation and are simply being loyal to their "friend" (the powermonger)
    • "the Narcotics division was rotten to the core, with many guys taking money from the very drug dealers they were supposed to bust."
      • piracy is more profitable than production
      • cutting funding for legitimate activities increases the incentive for illegitimate activities
    • in-group loyalty can be exploited to protect the corrupt