How to understand power – Eric Liu

How to understand power – Eric Liu

Every day of your life, you move through systems of power
that other people made. Do you sense them? Do you understand power? Do you realize why it matters? Power is something we are often
uncomfortable talking about. That’s especially true in civic life,
how we live together in community. In a democracy, power is supposed to
reside with the people, period. Any further talk about power
and who really has it seems a little dirty,
maybe even evil. But power is no more inherently good or
evil than fire or physics. It just is. It governs how any form of
government works. It determines who gets to determine
the rules of the game. So learning how power operates is key
to being effective, being taken seriously,
and not being taken advantage of. In this lesson, we’ll look at where
power comes from, how it’s exercised and what you can do to
become more powerful in public life. Let’s start with a basic definition. Power is the ability to make others do
what you would have them do. Of course, this plays out in
all arenas of life, from family to the workplace
to our relationships. Our focus is on the civic arena, where power means getting a community
to make the choices and to take the actions that you want. There are six main sources of civic power. First, there’s physical force
and a capacity for violence. Control of the means of force,
whether in the police or a militia, is power at its most primal. A second core source
of power is wealth. Money creates the ability to buy results
and to buy almost any other kind of power. The third form of power is state action,
government. This is the use of law and
bureaucracy to compel people to do or not do certain things. In a democracy, for example,
we the people, theoretically, give government its power
through elections. In a dictatorship, state power emerges
from the threat of force, not the consent of the governed. The fourth type of power is social norms
or what other people think is okay. Norms don’t have the centralized
machinery of government. They operate in a softer way,
peer to peer. They can certainly make people
change behavior and even change laws. Think about how norms around marriage
equality today are evolving. The fifth form of power is ideas. An idea, individual liberties, say,
or racial equality, can generate boundless amounts
of power if it motivates enough people to change
their thinking and actions. And so the sixth source of
power is numbers, lots of humans. A vocal mass of people creates
power by expressing collective intensity of interest and by asserting legitimacy. Think of the Arab Spring
or the rise of the Tea Party. Crowds count. These are the six main sources of power,
what power is. So now, let’s think about how
power operates. There are three laws of power
worth examining. Law number one:
power is never static. It’s always either accumulating
or decaying in a civic arena. So if you aren’t taking action,
you’re being acted upon. Law number two:
power is like water. It flows like a current
through everyday life. Politics is the work of harnessing
that flow in a direction you prefer. Policymaking is an effort to freeze
and perpetuate a particular flow of power. Policy is power frozen. Law number three:
power compounds. Power begets more power,
and so does powerlessness. The only thing that keeps law
number three from leading to a situation where only one person has all the power is how we apply laws one and two. What rules do we set up so that a few
people don’t accumulate too much power, and so that they can’t enshrine their
privilege in policy? That’s the question of democracy, and you can see each of these laws at work
in any news story. Low wage workers organize to
get higher pay. Oil companies push to get a big
pipeline approved. Gay and lesbian couples seek the legal
right to marry. Urban parents demand school vouchers. You may support these efforts or not. Whether you get what you want depends
on how adept you are with power, which brings us finally to what you can do
to become more powerful in public life. Here, it’s useful to think in
terms of literacy. Your challenge is to learn how to read
power and write power. To read power means to pay attention to
as many texts of power as you can. I don’t mean books only. I mean seeing society as a set of texts. Don’t like how things are in your campus
or city or country? Map out who has what kind of power,
arrayed in what systems. Understand why it turned out this way, who’s made it so,
and who wants to keep it so. Study the strategies others
in such situations used: frontal attack or indirection, coalitions or charismatic authority. Read so you may write. To write power requires first that you
believe you have the right to write, to be an author of change. You do. As with any kind of writing,
you learn to express yourself, speak up in a voice that’s authentic. Organize your ideas,
then organize other people. Practice consensus building. Practice conflict. As with writing,
it’s all about practice. Every day you have a chance to practice,
in your neighborhood and beyond. Set objectives, then bigger ones. Watch the patterns, see what works. Adapt, repeat. This is citizenship. In this short lesson, we’ve explored where
civic power comes from, how it works
and what you can do to exercise it. One big question remaining
is the “why” of power. Do you want power to benefit everyone
or only you? Are your purposes
pro-social or anti-social? This question isn’t about strategy. It’s about character,
and that’s another set of lessons. But remember this: Power plus character
equals a great citizen, and you have the power to be one.


  1. He forgot propaganda: information and misinformation, and the manipulation of propaganda to control the masses.

    "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past," repeated Winston obediently.

  2. One could argue that money should be first. With enough money you pay people to physically enforce your will. People nowadays do this by manipulating people's mentality. They pay lobbyists etc.

  3. I think power in the USA is base on three pillars: 1) Money represented by billionaires, millionaires, banks, corporations. 2) Vote represented by voters and politicians and 3) Weapons represented by the police, FBI and armed forces.

  4. 4:10 – 4:17 well, in the past, the people assassinated those they deemed "too powerful". I mean, look at Julius Caesar.

  5. Would be amazing if this could be de-jargon-ized so it’s more accessible to 3-5th graders that are learning about civics

  6. I want the power to touch other mens wives. I wanna sleep and impregnate these hoes all around without paying child support

  7. Character..a good one defines power …but what is character? ..for one, antisocial may be pro… Power is power and character is character

  8. the one who suggested the background music should really think about joining Elon Musk and leave for outer space

  9. I found that the music drowned out the message. Sometimes I literally couldn't hear what was being said because of the over loud background music.

  10. I love the background music a lot. It probably would be better to have it separated from the information or maybe used in a video game though.

  11. Power is the hability to create in others an emotion able to change it all, to good or bad. Fear or hope for example. THE END.

  12. source 4 to 6 can be condensed into 1… an idea influences others and begets the numbers, soon enough with the right numbers an idea has morphed into a social norm. so an idea, numbers and social norms can be thought of as the same source of power at different stages in time i.e. a kind of an evolving source of power if you may.

  13. Did anyone find the background musical scores online? Some of them are so exact in terms of the notes, chords, and timbre that I can't stop myself from replaying those pieces…

  14. The Stanford prison experiment showed how people abuse immense power or position. I agree with it as I once did the same.

  15. "power is the ability to make others do what you would have hem do " is just one of the meaning of power, it Can't generalize all of the meaning of this word.
    this is Complete definition of power:
    1). the ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality.
    2).the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events.
    3).physical strength and force exerted by something or someone.
    4).energy that is produced by mechanical, electrical, or other means and used to operate a device.

    and also this video didn't mention about the power of language, how is that language plays the rule of shaping thoughts and opinions,the regime's control of language by deceptive and manipulative use of language, which related to the information power, media power (those are very important because we are living in the information age right now)

  16. Perfect authors to read for starting political theorists: Machiavelli, John Locke, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Hobbes. Good men to start off with and branch out.

  17. I was hoping to figure out what had the least amount of power throughout all power, Disregarding the type of power given, Fictional or non-fictional

  18. So everyone understand and can't talk me is I hate you and want kill you. Come on because i hate you. Sorry.

  19. Cheers to the amount of people watching this, I think we re the same public moving from a video to another, as from a class to another. See you all at the next course

  20. Some say the Law is the Truth,
    But Power is the only Truth.
    Your own Power as in the power of your Hands, does not betray, does not fade and does not fail.
    Money can be cosidered power but it has flaws, it can turn worthless in the blink of an eye, Rot away over time and can betray you at any given moment.

    Philosophy is an everchanging thing my friend's

  21. 「書く力」を行使しようとすると権力のファンネルが飛んできて嫌がらせされるけどね。

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