Some Thoughts on Power

Presidential election years are usually an interesting time for any of us. They become even more interesting when one has delved into largely anarchistic libertarian circles. Add Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to the mix, and you’ve got quite the display. But if you really want to know how fascinating these spectacles are, do a bit of study on the broader subject of power.

Some Thoughts on Power

Some Thoughts on Power

Power itself is oft overlooked although it is the subject on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Policy, personality, morals, ethics, laws, freedom, economics, and philosophy all get blurted out with a certain level of incoherence because the topic of discussion is power and very few people actually seem to realize that. We’re all so busy hopping from one foot to the next talking about who should have what power and why, completely unaware that all those conversations are of a higher design.

Anarchists often think themselves above this, though they are in fact usually at the bottom of the food chain. Complaining about power’s existence is quite futile. Power never ceased to exist simply because some number of people found it displeasing. Whatever your thoughts on power, they have little to do with the physics. Nobody with power ever decided to be powerless because powerless people asked them to join their ranks.

The subject of power goes well beyond politics though. It goes well beyond business, or money, or government. It even goes beyond force of arms. Power is everywhere, in our words, our thoughts, our beds, and our interpersonal relationships. Elections are but one of many contests for power that people engage in at every moment of every day, and we ignore it to our detriment. 

What is Power?

Broadly defined, let us address power as the ability to get things done. Whatever you accomplish today, be it to feed yourself, to excite your lover to climax, to make a sum of money, or to win some number of people to your way of thinking, was an exercise of power.

At a bare minimum, you require fuel (food) to generate energy (power) for your body to function. You exert energy to obtain this fuel, and unless you are on the path to starvation, you obtain more energy than you exert. We exert influence (power) over others to convince them to act in our interests. Be it to pay us wages, or to work for us in exchange for wages.

Even in love and sex, things we would very much like to think of as something other than contests of power, such a struggle exists. One desires a mate, and attempts to influence that person to reciprocate their desire. Equal sex drives between partners being unlikely, one must influence the other to sex. During sex, especially for men, there is a contest to defer gratification or exhaustion until after the other is satiated.

If you had a conversation of the slightest importance today, you engaged in a contest of power. You used your words to put ideas into someone else’s mind. This person may or may not have wanted those ideas to be there, but they are there nonetheless. Consent has nothing to do with it. How much impact those ideas had was a measurement of your power as a communicator.


Elections are not merely contests to obtain power, they are contests of power. Men compete in displays of power to convince the masses that they are most capable of wielding it. Raising money is one display. Spending money another. Mobilizing other people to campaign is another. Maintaining a steady stream of media attention is another. Rhetoric to win the minds of the masses is another. Alliances, endorsements, insults, power, power, and power.

Especially under a democratic system of government, the exact policy ideas have almost nothing to do with it. One does not gain power because of his policies, quite the contrary. He rather adopts policies in pursuit of power. He makes a calculation based on his assessment of public opinion and his ability to authoritatively articulate a premise, then he wagers resources in an attempt to gain more power based on those ideas.

If you’ve ever noticed, as most people who pay attention have, that politicians rarely keep their promises, this is why. They act in the interests of power, and they cannot be expected to do anything else. They make a promise in furtherance of power. They fulfill or break a promise in furtherance of power. It has nothing to do with any of the things powerless folk would like it to.

Transgression of this law is why Ron Paul lost the Republican primary, and observance is why Barack Obama is President of the United States.

Ethics of Power

There are none. As far as power is concerned, morality and ethics are little more than manipulation tactics. A politician or media personality tells you abortion is awesome or he tells you it is immoral based entirely on what that obtains for him. Redistribution of wealth is either the hallmark of fairness, or a tyrannical exercise of unconstitutional power and economic degradation based entirely on what it does for the power seeker.

When an army stands atop a hill prepared to annihilate a people, it does no good whatsoever to ready one’s argumentation ethics. The fight will be won not by the more ethical, not by the more factually correct, but by the more powerful. The army that fights to defend the scientific method stands no better chance of winning a war than an army which fights to impose the will of a polytheistic religion.

Likewise, a democratic government has no inherent advantage in combat over a dictator, and a dictator no inherent advantage over an anarchist. The stronger group wins, end of discussion. Whatever rhetorical advantages one may have over the other, whatever power those advantages leverage over the opponent, are not unworthy of discussion, but they are not inherent to the form of government, or lack thereof. The only relevant question is the power leveraged.

The Powerless Anarchist

The powerless anarchist decries the use of power. He pleads incessantly for a world where all relations are consensual, completely unaware that consensual relationships are merely exercises of a different variety of power. He insists on a universal standard of morality which, even if correct, has no impact on the physics of power.

This is not to say that anarchists are inherently and eternally powerless by virtue of their anarchism. It is merely an observance of anarchists’ behavior in the present. It is perfectly viable for anarchists to coordinate voluntarily and to raise armies and to fight states. It is perfectly viable for anarchists study and wield power. It just so happens to be that in the present, most anarchists prefer to remain powerless and muse pointlessly to themselves about how morally superior they are to their rulers. It accomplishes nothing, and it never will.

Rather than compete for power and defeat rivals, most anarchists compete with one another for market share of very limited attention spans inside a very small group. They engage in senseless contests of fantasy world ideological purity which have zero bearing on anything besides their tiny social circles.

If one actually wishes to change societies, such contests are meritless. I’m an anarcho-capitalist, yet I couldn’t care less about the opinions of most other self described anarcho-capitalists. They are some of the most useless people on the planet. Their silly games of rhetorical and logical chess and checkers have absolutely zero impact on the world, and are almost entirely devoid of any actual intellect. Very few have read the works of actual intellectuals like Rothbard and Hoppe. They instead utter shallow, empty catch phrases with no understanding of their meaning.

They decry political power and claim themselves to be of a higher moral plane, but in reality engage in the same empty rhetorical nonsense of the State politician. They preach open borders not because a free society would allow unrestricted travel, but because other anarchists will kiss their ass for doing so. They spout off about racial, cultural, gender, and sexual equality not because these things have any basis in reality, but because it grants them market share in a very limited pool of resources.

Like the politician, they play the game of power.

And they do so poorly.



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  • MrAwesome

    Cantwell, please record you reading more of your articles. Podcasts has made me lazy.

    Every Millennial

    • paendragon

      You’re not a Millennial, because you typed that out literately! Millennials can’t read, either!

  • paendragon

    Stop name-dropping! Rothbard is OK, but Hoppe is a moron – hardly an “intellectual” worth reading.
    Dropping Hoppe’s name only proves you haven’t bothered to try to read through his mindless drek.

    • Doop-doo-doop

      Try again

      • paendragon

        Pft! If and when you actually bother to read Hoppe, you quickly realize he’s spewing forth a bit of everything in a sad attempt to look good to and please everyone all at once, sort of exactly like Muhammad did. He’s contradictory inconsistent and incoherent.

  • Miguel A. NM

    I don’t think that power is THE problem as much as coercion. Oftentimes one could find themselves ”forced” to do X because we are dealing with wiser people, smarter people, more experienced people. So in a sense those people have power over us because they are in an advantageous position. So if we had to engage in any kind of interaction with them – some kind of negotiation or job or whatever – we’d know that we’d not be able to make the most of it, but at least we’d have the option to not do so. Although knowing that we’d be worse off if we didn’t. So you’d have to accept that sometimes if you want to win in the future you need to lose or compromise in the present.

    For example, from a first world country standards sweatshops are unacceptable, but for some third world countries those are the best option that they have at their disposal. Until they don’t figure out something better for themselves that’s the best the can do.

    You have options A B & C You figure that B serves your self interest best so far. So you can rule A & B out. You’re not bound to those in any way shape or form. The government brings in D, and you know that B & C are always better than D and sometimes A is better than D and yet you’re bound to D no matter what. Like it or not.

    I think I see what your point is with those anarchists. They’re not being honest IMO. In an attempt to hide their shortcomings they try and pass themselves as freedom lovers and live and let live types while dismissing the challenges that reality lays out. Those are the worst IMO, because those deep down want you to give in to their fucking delusions and feeling of powerlessness. And then the only they have left is coercion. That’s why they will get along with leftists in general.

  • Jared

    “The powerless anarchist decries the use of power. He pleads incessantly for a world where all relations are consensual, completely unaware that consensual relationships are merely exercises of a different variety of power. He insists on a universal standard of morality which, even if correct, has no impact on the physics of power.”

    Sadly, this is completely correct. Rothbard, especially talks about power and the it’s problems when he took down left wing nutjob Konkin. So this may refer to modern anarchists, but can you really put Rothbard in the same category? Maybe it should read agorist instead, or maybe we can’t really call Rothbard an anarchist anymore.

    also: there’s really someone talking shit about Hoppe in these comments?
    He’s the best living libertarian philosopher.

    • Doop-doo-doop

      Jared, have you read “90’s Rothbard”

      His analysis in later years became even more astute

      • Jared

        I don’t really pay attention to dates, could you give me some material?
        I’d really like to know if i have or not.

        • Doop-doo-doop

          Specifically two of his 90’s essays have been linked here on CC’s site:
          1. Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State
          2. Right-Wing Populism

          There’s a collection called “The Irrepressible Rothbard” which can be found online and in book form (pdf and epub) which is worth reading.

          • Jared

            I’m familiar with the former but not the latter I’ll check it out.

  • Richard Chiu

    While this makes some interesting points, it stretches the elasticity of the term “power” to a degree that renders it largely meaningless for purposes of discussing specific actual uses of power.

    In physics, power is the amount of energy that one entity can transfer to other objects in a given span of time (energy being force applied over distance, force being acceleration of mass, acceleration being increase in velocity in a given time). An important limitation is that the energy must be transferred, and that the transfer must be directed. We do not speak of the ‘power’ of a container of gases in which energy is continually being exchanged among the various molecules, because there is no direction involved, each molecule is gaining and losing energy, rather than some identifiable set gaining energy and some others losing it. Puncture the container and let the gases escape, and suddenly we can discuss the power of the system (which will predictably vary according to the size of the hole).

    We can (and probably should) discard many direct physics analogy in speaking of political power. But I would retain two limitations on considering something an exercise in power. First, something identifiable must be accomplished in some span of time, the effect and rapidity varying with the amount of power applied. Second, only the intended effects are counted. We speak of power and efficiency in engines, a low efficiency means less power output given the same energy dispersed over time because more of the energy is wasted. As a consequence of this second limitation we will quickly see the importance of an element of political power which has no analog in physics, the degree to which the effect is produced by voluntary compliance.

    It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but this is only true when the effect the pen is intended to produce is largely compatible with voluntary compliance. When getting people to do something that they do not wish to do, the sword is more efficient, it reduces the percentage of your effort in attempting to command some activity wasted as a result of people simply refusing to comply. This is an important point because it allows us to see that many kinds of persuasion are not actually exerting force to change what people do, merely directing the force they have as individuals towards an end they desire. In a physical engine, there are parts of the engine that do not directly increase the power of the engine but exist to extend the useful life of the engine, improve the efficiency with which it operates, or just prevent the damn thing from exploding. The same is true of political systems, there can be other ends than pure power.

    Economics is crucial to a system of political power. People need to consume desirable resources to survive. This wealth must be created and then conserved for a time before it can be usefully consumed. Some desirable resources may exist in a state of nature, but the vast majority of those necessary to life above the animal level of savagery are not found in nature, and the quantity even of those which nature does produce are inadequate to sustain more than a hundred million humans on the entire planet. Thus humans must engage in investing some wealth in the means of producing additional wealth at a positive rate of return, or capitalization, and socially value this use of wealth above either immediate consumption or indefinite conservation of such wealth. This ideology is termed capitalism. The first capitalists were those who discovered that animals and plants could be kept and bred in captivity (which happened first is a disputed matter because of the question of intentionality, many edible fruiting plants use their edibility as a reproductive strategy and thus animals were unintentionally helping plants to breed a long time before humans came along at all), so as to produce more wealth by investment of existing resources (in turn expanding the categories of resources that could be considered desirable).

    We speak as though capitalism were invented in relatively recent history because the pastoral/agricultural forms of capitalism produce little in the way of political power compared to the mastery of weapons and willingness to use the threat of violence. Farmers and herdsmen have, for millennia, produced nearly all the wealth necessary to the survival of the majority of humans, but this economic production produced no natural defense against being plundered by the class of people skilled in applying violence to engage in plunder to serve their immediate consumption. It was the development of the industrial economy, and the application of capitalism to industry, which allowed capitalists to produce military power sufficient to gain a significant share of political power (incidentally, this is why an army that fights to defend the practical utility of the scientific method stands a far better chance of winning a war than an army which fights to impose the will of a polytheistic religion).

    This aside about economics, and economic power vs. direct military power, is not a complete explication of all the various components of a system of political power but merely an illustration of some of the complexities which are glossed over if we fail to recognize that “power” is not an infinitely elastic term which covers all human activity. The basic economic activity which sustains civilized existence is, by and large, not a source of efficient political power. I would say the same is true of skill or passion for love-making (two very different and perhaps opposite things). Being able to attract and satisfy a lover who voluntarily consents to such a relationship is entirely different from being able to coerce, deceive, or bribe someone into such a situation. The one that allows fully voluntary rejection of becoming my lover does not make them an object of applied political force.

    Another way of putting this is that, if the “effect” we are attempting to produce by the application of political force would have occurred regardless of the application of political force, we cannot reliably say political force produced the effect. If someone would have become my lover even if I was helpless and impoverished, then it is difficult to measure any effect of my being virile and wealthy produced. The same is true of warning people of a real danger that they would have recognized eventually. While I can infer (and only infer) the difference in time to produce the effect of recognition of danger, I cannot take credit for the effect entirely. It is only when we produce an effect that would not have occurred without our application of political force that we can measure our political power.

    And it is only when we can measure something that it makes any sense to speak of it as an effective causal factor in planning our future actions.

  • IRONMANAustralia

    ” … During sex, especially for men, there is a contest to defer gratification or exhaustion until after the other is satiated … “

    Wait … that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all this time?!

    Okay, important protip there guys. Thanks Cantwell.

    • Richard Chiu

      If you can…er, what’s the locally appropriate term for ejaculation?

      Anyway, if you can do that multiple times without losing your erection, there’s no conflict.

      Also, if a woman is actually into a guy, like instinctively wants his semen to fertilize her eggs, her woman parts do some pretty impressive things to help with that. Like woman specific parts, not parts that men have which woman also happen to have. Like things that make it kinda hard to lose your erection unless your heart’s stopped…though also things that have been known to cause less than perfectly healthy hearts to stop, come to think of it.

      Okay, I probably said too much about this.

  • paendragon

    You make “power” sound like “extortion,” then insist we have to Submit to the fact that this is the way life is! Re-phrase your interpretation of reality as being an Eternal “power” Struggle and/or as “The Will of Allah” and you would make a great Marxist or muslim, (or maybe a combination of both: “Marxlim”) Cantwell!

  • Kronk

    it seems to me any criticism will be just washed away as left libertarian pseudo ancap bullshit, while in fact it could be well thought out and right through the works of hoppe. yet still someone like chris would act like a demagogue and a politician himself, even if you are mereley asking a question.

    just as fake left libertarians willingly or unwillingly say things that grants them a market share, chris’s work, that i actually confirm in many, if not all cases, does exactly the same with much more right wing tending people, who are as far off from the libertarian angle, than lefties are with their naivity.

    people who answer the bullshit statements about white supremacy with: “look africa sucks, because they’re african, case closed” are in no way more describing reality, than some #blm protesting douche.

    its years now i am reading idiotic and illogical statements from brutalists and those alleged “wolf” type libertarians. trying to be the bigest asshole, shouting nigger and make fun of vegans has nothing to do with a think tank preparing a liberating power grab. i won’t say what it is, but what it looks like to me for years now: some guys who are reactionary, just for the cause of being reactionary. i dont see any rothbard or hoppe in this. hoppe is all about realizing the nature of things, which COULD sound reactionary, but is only mirroring truth.

    so, while getting introduced to very smart and quite logically thinking people, i have to observe a bunch of bigheaded people, who won’t engage a discussion other than trolling and being just like politicians tools to make their leading figure look bigger.

    cantwell doesnt need it, his direct approach is big enough. it doesnt have to be a demagogue hate rally against people who could have another opinion.

    what does “linger longer” actually mean?