Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Towards a brief history of the physics of power

Prior to Galileo and Newton’s experiments, gravity was thought to be a property of the objects affected by it, a property by which heavier objects accelerate more rapidly towards the center than lighter objects. After Newton, but prior to Einstein’s formulation of general relativity, gravitation was understood to be a force exerted by massive objects, operating at a distance on any other massive object. Since Einstein, gravitation is hypothesized to be a local perturbation in the space-time continuum, a distortion of space-time by mass. Objects in motion are not affected by gravitation directly; rather, the space-time though which they move is affected, and the curvature of space-time by mass registers with the observer as a pull upon the object, a curve in its trajectory.

An analogy can be drawn to the theory of social power. On one, very old account, the power held and exercised by a few is a property inherent in their souls, a self-mastery by which they are as stable and unmoving as the earth beneath our feet. The less powerful are both attracted to this stable center and liable to wander, like the planets, as a consequence of their own, internal variability and lack of moral weight. According to another theory – almost equally venerable – power is a force exercised by the mighty, which bends the less powerful to their will, securing obedience, consent, and even adoration. Power is a force of attraction, exercised by all to some extent, and affecting all equally. According to a third theory, however, power is neither a force nor a property of people, but a massive social fact, a curvature of social space. People act differently in proximity to power, not because they are forced to by the powerful, and not because they have weak souls, but because the path to what they want is bent by the presence of power.