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The Dual Meaning of Power

Interesting

I'm reading a book now called Fossil Capital by Andreas Malm. It's about the fossil fuel use and capitalism fit together like a hand and glove and co-evolved over hundreds of years. Malm notices and interesting fact about English - that the word 'power' has two distinct but intertwined meanings. He says that other languages have distinct words for each meaning and ponders how the juxtaposition affects our thinking.

One is the meaning from physics and has to do with the ability to do work. The math that is used to calculate it isn't very hard in lots of ways and it's a deterministic system. Horsepower is an example of power. If you have something that can lift 75 kg 1 meter in 1 second you have something that has one metric horsepower.
Not so hard to understand.

Before the steam-engine the main source of power was muscle power; either human or animal muscles. There were also waterwheels. This enables an organic economy where everything humans use is taken from the possibilities of the surface of the earth. When the human population grows without limit a point is reached where their needs can't be met by what's on the surface.

With the steam engine and the burning of coal, a huge new resource was opened. Coal gave people access to biological energy that was laid down over millions of years in the past.

The other meaning comes from human interactions. A person who can influence another person has power. This kind of power is not like the power that physics talks about. Its shifting influence in a chaotic society. It can be recognized but not calculated and it's not predictable like physics is. Rather than being "the ability to do work" social power means "the ability to get others to work for you".

A socially powerful person can get others to work at building a steam engine for instance. And once that happens the powerful person is powerful in two senses. They can get others to work for them AND get the benefit of the physical power that the steam engine provides. Now since the steam engine draws on energy reserves that are huge compared to what the surface offers that makes the powerful one powerful indeed. This is what capitalism is like.

Malm points out that this arose first in England. By lucky happenstance there was lots of coal in England that people were already burning for heat. When Watt developed the steam engine there was a ready at hand supply of fuel. This enabled a co-evolution in productive capacity and capitalism. Eventually capitalists emerged from that co-evolution who were more powerful than kings.

Marx observed an interesting aspect of that capitalist system. The most powerful people weren't the ones that actually manipulate the physical power. But the product of what the workers made automatically belonged to the powerful one. Of course this doesn't have to be so, it's a social construct, and who's powerful enough to influence social constructs? (I leave the answer as an exercise :-)

In our society we all manipulate physical power a lot. When we started this social evolution the pollution problems of fossil fuels were not considered important. Then England started experiencing pea soup fogs and by then it was kind of too late. It took a hundred years to mitigate that. We use petroleum mostly now instead of coal and the CO2 from burning that on a vast scale is causing global warming. Pea soup fogs were bad enough. I even experienced a few when I was a kid. But now some countries face permanent flooding. Way more serious calamity

We're learning slowly to make our use of physical power less damaging, even under capitalism But how do we make the social power of capitalists less damaging?

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.