The Power

I suspect that a lot of people will have read The Power this summer. It is an ideal summer read. Easy and quick to read on the beach, but thought provoking enough to give you something to talk about over drinks in the evening. Our holiday group was a bit divided on it. I thought that it was pretty good, while others bemoaned poor writing and a lack of political subtlety. I thought that the writing was fine for the most part and its political message needs to be understood within the genre of dystopian satire (ie it is deliberately extreme to make a point).

For those of you who haven’t read it – I’ll try not to give away any huge #spoilers but, if you are worried about that sort of thing don’t read on. The Power asks the question what would happen to our world if women suddenly became universally physically stronger than men. In this case their strength takes the form of being able to shoot out painful electronic charges which bring about agony in men and which potentially allow women to control men in a range of direct and indirect ways.

The point of the book is essentially to argue that patriarchy is founded on physical violence. If you take the capacity for physical violence away then patriarchy collapses (and based on the book, collapses quickly). I thought that this was thought provoking stuff. While I see a lot of patriarchal power dynamics, they often seem to be quite a few steps away from actual physical violence. Patriarchy operates in both subtle (e.g. domestic assumptions and negotiations about who does the washing up) and less subtle (#everydaysexism) ways, but it is not always apparent (to me at least) that all of this is underpinned by the capacity for physical violence. Some of the women I’ve talked to were less surprised by this insight – which I suppose goes someway to proving the point.

However, The Power makes a pretty convincing case. If you suddenly offer a group of people (especially people who have been disempowered in some way) a new power then you can’t be surprised if they use it to try and even up the score. I’m sure that this offers some useful lessons for international relations as well as gender relations, but I’ll leave others to comment on that.

One of the things that is disappointing (but not necessarily unrealistic) about the way in which the story is told in The Power is that there are almost no women who stand out against the use of violence. Patriarchy is turned on its head but no lessons are learnt. Nobody behave better because they have been oppressed. Everyone is happy to either take up the mantle of oppression or stand by while others lead the charge. It is a thoroughly depressing book that offers little hope for humanity.

Sigh… these are the times that we live in I suppose. Hate has become the leitmotif of politics and policy and optimism is in short supply.

So, to turn to my usual theme – what does all of this have to do with careers. I’m reminded of Zizek’s work on violence. As with The Power he argues that we need to see violence as a key aspect of the political economy. The ability to inflict and cause violence (of various types – economic, symbolic and of course physical) is the critical underpinning of power. I think that this has a lot of relevance to the way in which we think about work and industrial relations. Power within education and employment offers some groups the opportunity to make or break people’s lives. If I give a student a failing mark I can render their investment in higher education void and dramatically reduce their earning power – literally taking the food off of their table. Is this not a kind of violence? Employers power (and capacity for violence) is even more direct. I guess this is why so many unions have campaigns on bullying which is essentially just another word for violence.

So I think that there is some interesting work and thinking to do on the subject of work, career, power and violence. I’m not sure when I’ll get round to this but it seems worth doing. Perhaps someone else has got some more to add to this…



  1. I don’t know if I got something very insightful to add, but I agree – this was an interesting read.

    I particularly like the setting for the book, where in a world turned upside down matriarchy is the norm, and this male writer writes a horrifying and totally fictional and obscure story where women are the weaker ones. And suddenly, they get this ability to inflict pain, turning the world as they know it in the book (and actually as we, the readers, know it in the real world too – as a patriarchy) upside down again, making women the stronger sex. So the fictional writer of the book writes an alternative story about the origin of the world order as he knows it, pointing his finger at the masters of his societal order, asking questions about their use of violence and power – just like many female writers have raised questions about patriarchy in our non-fictional, real world.

    In his correspondence with his friend, a woman which he calls “one of the good ones”, she and the writer debate whether or not his descriptions are a bit too drastic, if he’s not pushing it a bit far, women can’t be as bad as he describes them to be. And perhaps there would be no wars and the world would really be a better place if the mellow, considerate and non-violent men ruled it? But after all, women have to be the powerful, aggressive and violent ones because they have to defend their babies.

    So the arguments are all switched in the writer’s world, and the reasons for its world order is as natural and integrated as it is in ours.

    For me, this is not necessarily a story about patriarchy and how it’s founded on power and violence, it’s more a story about how power can corrupt whoever it is that suddenly gets it, and if they feel they have a lot to avenge, then it easily gets out of hand. Women or man, and the reason why no one stands up against it is that it isn’t about one or the other being more or less emotionally intelligent. And I think on some level, this was what the writer and his friend discussed, what happens if the social order is challenged in such a profound way? Surely, everything is better as it is, then at least we know what we have, and what the rules are?

    So how does this relate to the world of work and career? Perhaps we can learn something about what the use of violence means for the distribution of power between the different strata of the employment structures, but also perhaps something about why it stays this way. Throwing everything up in the air makes it all really unpredictable, doesn’t it, so it’s actually better to keep it the way it is, some people rule and others suffer, this is how it is, and this is what we know, one could sardonically say. Careers, even though they in the ideal of our time are boundaryless, self-determined, not situated in lifelong employment or mapped out by organizations, they are still dependent on following the structures of power, because someone decides who gets what.

    So this ends on a depressing note. But I agree with you – some work could definitely be done on this and that would be a good thing.

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