Power is a general phenomenon in the living world. We are accustomed to seeing animals fighting with each other or predators devouring their prey, using either their physical force or their number. Even in our life power is an everyday occurrence. We encounter a direct, physical form of power, as a sheer force when someone attacks us or inflicts blows on us and forces us to react.
But there are also subtle forms of it: the power of persuasion – when you are not completely aware that you are led towards accepting something that you did not want – or of advertising, which imposes itself in your mind, either through images or through music or through words, forcing you finally to buy that product.
The types of political power are not much different from these usual experiences, especially if we are aware that they emerged from ordinary life experience.
What is Political Power
The concept of political power has many different meanings. Analysts and theoreticians often disagree concerning its complete features. However, there is some consensus regarding the core of this concept. Political power is namely the capacity of a group to succeed in imposing its goals on the human community and constraining it to follow those goals. In this way, the members of the community accept or are forced to materialize the ideas, interests or goals of those who hold the political power.
As you can see, in the political realm power is not very different from the way it acts in other domains of life: it is a form of constraint, of influence, of changing the behavior of others according to your interests. That means there is always a kind of resistance that, here as elsewhere, power encounters.
Political power is also a kind of „specific mechanism” (Talcott Parsons) of imposing your own interest upon others.
However, there is a major difference between political power and power manifestations in a natural framework: political power is related to society, to a multitude of human persons who live together and who have decided to do so. On the other hand, natural power is more like an outburst of needs or irrational tendencies and is exerted more upon isolated beings. When the alpha male in a wolf pack or another animal group defends its position against challengers, it does so by resorting to its own force, while the other members of the group remain more or less uninvolved.
In human society, people do not only listen to those who exert political power but are also able to think about their general condition and about the way in which the existing political power can influence their future life or the life of their offspring. Thus here the phenomenon of political power is not only related to the interests or needs of those who exert this power but is more like a network occurrence: it is an expression of the dominant interests of the majority of the members of that society.
The word ‘interest’ has a very broad meaning. Apart from biological needs, interests are related to values, to ideas in which those members believe. Therefore, we can speak of religious interests as well as moral interests. Interests depend on the historical stage at which that community lives because at each such stage people understand themselves differently and have different ideas about what must be pursued and accomplished.
One of the oldest types of political power is the monarchy. The etymology of this term suggests also its meaning: in the ancient Greek, the word ‘monarchia’ was built from the words ‘monos,’ meaning one or single, and the verb ‘arkho’ meaning to rule. In antiquity, the monarch was considered a representative of the deity. Therefore, his legitimacy was rarely contested in the beginning. That happened only later when people became able to distinguish between religious values and the materialization of these values. We can recall that the Egyptian pharaoh was seen as a real God, who after death would go back to his heavenly family. People did not question his decisions but only submitted to them, as today a believer always tends to submit himself to what he thinks is God’s decision. For such a believer there are also prayers asking God to give him the inner power to be able to accept and submit to these decisions.
We see that in this case, the power to decide over the destiny of the community, over the way in which people have to live their lives or else die, was not imposed and secured by force, but by the way in which people thought. Whatever decision the pharaoh took, it was considered good because it belonged to a God.
The capacity to discern the human element in the pharaoh or the monarch and to see him as an equal developed very slowly, over thousands of years. Only when people realized that somehow they could decide what is good and wrong for themselves and not leave such decisions in the hand of others was it possible to replace the power of monarch with the power of the community members.
It was a profound change in thinking when people realized that they had to make decisions and that the rate of success of these decisions was not based on the will of divinity but on their preparedness. We can imagine that this capacity arose in the beginning in the people who lived around the monarchs and who benefited the most from their social positions and privileges and who were affected the most by the decisions of the kings.
These people were the most educated, and therefore they had incentives for rationality in making them assess the decisions of the king not only based on transcendent values but also on their worldly consequences. Such rationalist thinking could not readily accept that a disastrous resolution could be taken by a God to destroy the community of believers and thus undermine His own glory and fall into oblivion.
Mainly when the relationships with other states increased significantly and when the need to resist their expansion or, on the contrary, to subdue them, involved the great organizational and leadership qualities such rationalism could develop. Those who assisted the king understood that their prosperity depended on the welfare of the whole community.
This might have been the moment when the idea of the republic was born. Of course, in the beginning, the monarch was replaced by another monarch, until people grew accustomed to the idea that kings could also be changed and that gods do not always protect them. Gradually people understood that political power resides in their own hands.
The term ‘republic’ comes from the Latin phrase ‘res publica,’ meaning the public thing or interest or affair. It translates the Greek word ‘politeia’, which referred to the form of government of a state. This is why, although the Platonic dialogue Politeia was translated by the Latins as Res Publica – which later in the European languages became simply republic – it did not refer to any ‘republican’ government. However, it involved a kind of democracy, at least among the highest-status caste, the philosophers.
Latins, especially Cicero, speaking about the res publica, considered that it was a duty of a citizen to be involved in public affairs, to take part in the decisions that the community has to make. This way of thinking is the result of a long-lasting evolution, during which, at first the Greek ancient city-states and then the Roman Republic replaced initial monarchies or tyrannies. In these forms of government, the power of a single person was replaced with the power of many, although not of all the people comprising those states. The idea of democracy was born in those times.
European history was a combination of these two types of political power. At the beginning of the 20th Century, a new kind of political power appeared: the communist dictatorship. If, in general, the European monarchies took their legitimacy from the idea that they were the representatives of God on Earth and the existing democratic features in the European governments involved the idea of political debates about how the general good had to be materialized, the communist as well as the Nazi dictatorship in Europe involved the idea that a unique party has the responsibility to fulfill the historical destiny of a country or a class. The Nazis pretended that they fulfilled the historical destiny of Germany, whereas the communist party in Russia pretended that it led the citizens to the real goal of history.
In both cases, the legitimacy of the political power was based on theoretical ideas: the Nazis considered that Germans were superior to other nations, that they were a superior race, and therefore they had the right to subdue and lead them. (The idea of race and race difference was the result of 19th Century historiography.)
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union considered that it could hasten the flow of history and impose communism, the most advanced human society in Marx’s view, in a country that was not so much developed economically as the other European capitalist states. Both the Nazis and the Communists pretended that they had the right to eliminate all those who thought differently about the end of history. Which they also did by force, submerging the European countries in blood and terror.