Questions on Power

Q: In terms of the way you think of power, who is the most powerful person in the world? And what’s the most powerful organization in the world?

Like many things, it’s hard to nail down power or define it. To me, the most important thing is that power is morally neutral. It’s not good, and it’s not bad. Its moral impact depends on who’s using it, how, and why. 

Money is a form of power, and its use illustrates this principle, as an instance of the larger case. You can use money to donate to charity, or to buy a weapon. The money isn’t the problem, it’s what you do with it that matters.

Power is the ability to effect change in the world. That encompasses a wide swath of power, including internal skills, external resources, the capacity to organize people and persuade them to coordinate towards a larger goal.

I think it’s worth taking traditional power structures and organizations seriously. We might not like them, we might not agree with them, but they are currently running the world.

Some of the most powerful people in the world include the wealthiest people in the world (currently Bernard Arnault & family, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates). 

There are also those with the most political power: probably the President of the United States (currently Joe Biden), the paramount leader of China (currently Xi Jinping), and Russia’s president (currently Vladimir Putin).

Similarly, the most powerful organizations are arguably either companies (Walmart, Saudi Aramco, State Grid Corporation of China, Amazon… and farther down the list according to revenue, Apple and Alphabet) or nations (by population: China, India, the US).

I will answer your question a bit more fully by… asking more questions. These questions, left as exercises for the reader, might usefully inform or color your thinking, without constraining the specific answers.

First, alongside individuals or organizations—what are the most powerful resources in the world, whether physical or immaterial? Money? Oil? Water? GPUs? Specific forms of knowledge (AI systems? Engineering?) Status?

Samo Burja makes a distinction between live players and dead players. So one question would be, who are the most powerful live players in traditional political and economic structures—individuals and organizations?

A different angle: who are the most powerful individuals and organizations who also have wisdom and love? We might call these trustworthy leaders. And who are the most powerful trustworthy leaders who are live players?

A related question: if everything is a system, and every system has a goal, what do you think is the goal of the system of our species? If every system has a bottleneck, what do you think is the bottleneck of the system of our species? Which individuals or organizations have the most power in relation to that bottleneck?

Lastly, a tactical, pragmatic, locally useful angle: who are the most powerful individuals in your network? What are the most powerful organizations in your network? Who are the live players? Which of these leaders also has wisdom and love—who is trustworthy? What are the most powerful resources locally? What is your bottleneck? What is the bottleneck of the network you are embedded in? And above all: how will your answers to these questions inform your strategy?

May considering these questions help you clarify how power is present in your life, your communities, and the world at large. May it help you to gain power, and may you use that power in balance with wisdom and love. May the power you wield help you to live your fullest life—to fulfill your vow—for the benefit of all beings. ❤️

Thank you to Anansi for asking the questions that prompted this post, and to Ben Mosior for reviewing this post.

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