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Harnessing power with Eric Liu and Liz Letsoalo

This is a link to Eric Liu's talk 'How to Understand Power'. In roughly seven wholesome, motivating minutes, he leads us through all we need to know about power. Watch it. This article is essentially just summarising it minus the cute animations.

In his video, our mate Eric outlines six sources of power:

  • Physical Force: Control of, for example, police or militia. Can also of course refer to physical violence of any kind where a power dynamic exists.

  • Wealth: Money creates the ability to buy results, resources, and thereby power.

  • Law: Use of law and bureaucracy to compel people to do, or not do, certain things.

  • Social Norms: Operating peer to peer, social norms can make people change their behaviour and can change laws.

  • Ideas: Ideas can motivate people to change their thinking and actions.

  • Numbers: Collective intensity - i.e., "crowds count." Getting enough people together asserts legitimacy.

They make sense, right? You can probably picture each of these playing out. In the civic arena - i.e., in public - power means getting a community to take the actions and make the choices that you want them to make.

But how does power itself work? Eric proffers three laws of power worth examining:

  1. Power is never static: it's always either accumulating or decaying. So, he says quite ominously, "if you aren't taking action, you're being acted upon."

  2. Power flows: and interestingly, politics is the work of harnessing the flow in a preferred direction.

  3. Power compounds: both power and powerlessness beget more of themselves.

Looking at law three, it's easy to think that powerful people simply grow in power until a few have all of it - and sure, they do - but this is why democracy is key. Power moves, and by understanding both what it is (the six sources) and how it operates (the three laws), we can move it. We can take part in a democratic system, and take action to accumulate power for the people and places that require it.

Eggshells is pro-democracy, and pro-empowerment of YOU. So I'll finish with some advice from our wise guest Liz Letsoalo: identify your source of power and find a way to use it, today.

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