Society and Social Power

4. Social Power
“The number of people killed in battle – calculated per 100,000 people – has dropped by 1,000-fold over the centuries.”

Jules Verne published his famous novel Around the World in 80 Days in 1873. The novel portrays a wealthy English gentleman who wagers that he can travel around the world in a mere 80 days and achieves what was considered impossible at the time. When he manages to reach the shores of England after braving storms, fighting tribals, and crossing forests and raging rivers, everyone considers it a miracle. This is fiction, but it closely reflects the reality of the period. Long journeys, whether by sea or by land, were fraught with risk. Columbus could not get people to even agree with his idea that one could go east by sailing west. He failed to find financial support in Portugal, Genoa, Venice and England, and managed with great difficulty to get the backing of the king of Spain. Ferdinand Magellan, who is supposed to be the first man to circumnavigate the globe, actually did not. His ships and part of his crew did, he died along the way in the Philippines, in a battle with the native people. Travel was slow, dangerous, unreliable, difficult.

Compare this with travel today. Travel agencies, online booking, and improved modes of transportation have made travel fast, safe and comfortable. Some amount of luck may be necessary, but surely there is no need for a miracle to enable us to complete the journey as planned.

Travelling around the world is no longer considered the achievement of a lifetime, but business as usual.

How did this happen? How have we become so powerful? There are airplanes, computers, internet and cell phones, true. But this change has not been brought about by technology alone. Technology cannot explain all of the power we possess today. This change over 50-100 years or more is seen not just in travel. We see it in every sphere of life. We are better off than ever before.

We live longer today. Healthcare has improved. Life expectancy that was 31 in the early 20th century is 72 today. We see less starvation and famine. The world has immense productive power, to grow more crops, to create more goods. 200 years ago, Thomas Malthus said that human population growth would outpace food production. A UN study predicts that the world will have surplus food, in excess of the needs of the population by 2030.1 A 100 years ago, Ford customers had the choice of “any color you want as long as it is black”. Today, one does not have to be shopaholic to know that we are all spoilt for choice.

We live in the most peaceful of times. It is not easy to get this impression from reading the daily newspaper, but historically, the number of people killed in battle – calculated per 100,000 people – has dropped by 1,000-fold over the centuries. War like WW I or II is unthinkable in Western Europe today.

Primitive early man living outside society went out, and either returned with food, or had become food himself. It was each man for himself. Today, the family nurtures the young till the age of 18 or 21, taking care of their physical, soci

al, emotional, financial and educational needs. The family is a microcosm of society. What the family does to its members, society does in a larger way.

Most countries provide its citizens security, law and order. We do not go to sleep wondering whether the neighboring country will invade our borders in the night and colonize us. We have our governments and armies, there is also international diplomacy. We are all covered by a fabric of law. We do lock our doors at night, but we are also fairly sure that powers stronger than our front door are protecting us, and that law enforcement agencies are policing and ensuring safety. The idea of human rights is established. We have rules for property as well as intellectual property. There are rules that bind international trade. There are conventions enforced even in the treatment of prisoners of war. There are even laws that protect animals and natural resources.

Better transportation and refrigeration facilities and trade links between countries have brought the world’s produce to our supermarkets. When a major phone manufacturer launches a new version, it becomes available simultaneously in every continent. Online stores deliver all over the world. A hundred and forty years ago, Jules Verne said in Around the World in 80 days that the world has become smaller. Then how do we describe the world today?

Earlier, people had to wait for the next day’s newspaper to find out what happened in the world that day. Later, radio and TV brought us news the same day, and then events began to unfold live. Today, we have live streaming video, not just from major international news channels, but from people on the street who have a cell phone and internet connection. We can also reach out to the world better. Expensive and cumbersome trunk calls are replaced by instant wireless communication.

Education is no longer the domain of a select few. It was expensive and not easily accessible. In the 16th century, a wealthy German merchant asked a learned man how to give his son a good business education. The learned man told him, If you want your son to learn addition and subtraction, then any French or German university will do. But if you want the boy to go on to more advanced subjects like multiplication and division, then you had better send him to Italy.2 Today, all primary school children all over the world learn the multiplication tables without leaving their country or town or village. Almost every country has compulsory, free primary education. All the knowledge accumulated by earlier generations over millennia is made available in a capsule form, and delivered to the student through formal education in 15-20 years. We take for granted all the knowledge that we have. Among a group of illiterate people, the one person who could read and write enjoyed great power. We all have that power today. Education has become more easily accessible too. Student loans are available. Books that were so few and precious used to be chained to libraries. Today there are book stores, book banks, private and public libraries. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have electronically opened up the classrooms of the world’s best universities to all. With the advent of the digital reader, electronic books and online libraries, it is time and energy that are in short supply.

The internet has accelerated the pace of individual empowerment. Getting a book published, previously a challenge even for renowned writers, is a simple task today. Without the backing of a publishing group, without an investment, one can self-publish one’s writing, through Amazon or other similar services. Ebay and many similar sites make a trader of anyone, we do not need a physical store to sell anymore.

Banks and other financial organizations allow us to do what was not possible earlier. If it were not for the bank loan, only the wealthy could venture into entrepreneurship. Today venture capital and bank credit can make an entrepreneur of anyone with an idea or skill. The opportunities that were available to only the wealthy or influential earlier are now available to every one of us.

Women in most countries can vote today, whereas a 100, even 50 years ago, they could not. Even some men could not. Being different is not condemned or frowned upon as much as before. Being colored, left handed, physically challenged, homosexual, unmarried, divorced, part of the minority, and being a liberal in a conservative society or a conservative in a liberal society are more accepted today. Individuality is accepted.

We were born with all these rights, we did not fight for them or have to ask for them. We received them, for no fault or desert of our own. All these powers we enjoy today are diverse expressions of the collective capacity of society. Society possesses great powers and capacities for accomplishment, and it enhances the power of its members to accomplish any and everything they seek to achieve. The experience and knowledge of the entire human community accumulated over countless generations are freely offered to each new generation. We are the product of a long line of evolution. We start off with the accumulated achievements of past generations, and build on it. So social capacity grows over time.

Not all development is positive, there are setbacks and digressions. Some movements seem to go in cycles. Even when there is progress, it is not uniform or fast. School enrollments for girls in Mali in 2012 are comparable to those in the United States in 1810. So there are countries that are 200 years apart. In Afghanistan, women are celebrating now because they are allowed to ride a bicycle. But the overall direction in which we’re moving is progressive.


5. Empowerment of the Individual
As society makes progress, it empowers the individual members more and more. The individual does not exist separate from society. His or her growth is defined, sanctioned and supported by society. All movements headed by an individual derive their energy and power from the support of the society. Success of any magnitude, in any field, for any person, has a parallel in the world around.

“The individual and the society are like nuclear physics and astronomy, one is the finite microcosm, and the other is the infinite macrocosm.”

When Martin Luther posted the ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517, the Protestant Reformation was launched. But the Reformation was born not because he posted the theses, it was because his views were accepted by people, because the people were ready for the Reformation. Luther’s views spread like wild fire and within years 200 new religious denominations sprouted up around Europe. His power came from society, if not all of it, from some sections of it that endorsed his views.

All great leaders rose to power on the strength of their followers’ support. Mahatma Gandhi was able to free India from colonial rule because he was accepted and obeyed by 300 million Indians. Mikhail Gorbachev was able to end the Cold War and dismantle authoritarian rule because the Russians aspired for greater freedom, and people everywhere wanted an end to the threat of nuclear war. The individual and the society are like nuclear physics and astronomy, one is the finite microcosm, the other is the infinite macrocosm. The interaction between the two is the catalyst and formula for social evolution and personal growth. Neither is complete without the other. The individual is the quintessence of society, and includes all the complexity of this macrocosmic society in specific expression.

6. Sources of Social Power
The source of social power is people. It is from people’s aspiration, energy, and capacities that society derives its power. When individual capacity is organized and channeled through a system, it becomes social power. This process of this transformation is illustrated by the story of a 16th century Indian emperor, Humayun. Humayun was engaged in a military campaign, when his wife was expecting their first child. Humayun was anxious to get news of the delivery as soon as possible. The problem was his army camp was at a distance of hundred miles from the palace. The fastest horse and the best rider would take more than a day to cover the rough terrain in the scorching heat. One wise old minister said he had a solution, and announced that he would arrange for the news to travel to the emperor within minutes. Now, this was in the 16th century, before the era of instant long distance communication. So what did this minister do? He ordered tall towers to be erected every few miles between the city and the army camp. He stationed a man with a drum on every tower, and a code was agreed upon. The moment the baby was born, the drum message was relayed, from tower to tower, across the hundred mile span in less than five minutes. A simple system made possible a feat that seemed impossible. Hundred drums and hundred men together cannot do this, but when they are arranged at a uniform distance from each other, along the hundred mile route, instant communication becomes possible. This is how society gets its power, by harnessing the energies and capacities of its individual members, and channelizing it through a system, much as the magnifying lens channelizes sun’s rays and creates fire, or the dam and the turbine channelize the river water and generate electricity.

Society is made up of people – their aspirations, energy and potential. Therefore it is a teeming mass of this potential that is unorganized at first. Human energy is released by human aspiration – for physical survival, happiness, accomplishment. The more intense the aspiration, the greater the energy released. Aspiration arises in response to crises, such as war or the spread of a contagious disease. It also arises in response to emerging opportunities –independence, democratization, spreading education or entrepreneurship. Sometimes the distinction between crises and opportunities is blurry. The threat of global warming has opened up research and development of renewable energy sources. The challenge or opportunity awakens the aspiration for a solution. This releases energy.

Energy is of many types. It can be the physical energy of a laborer, skilled work of the carpenter, plumber or goldsmith. It can be the dynamism of the leader or industrialist. It can be the erudition of the scholar, the creativity of the artist, the imagination of the writer or the mental energy of the engineer. All human activity is an expression of this energy. All human accomplishment is the result of the proper direction and application of the energy. The energy when directed towards finding a solution, becomes force. Force organized, becomes power.

A simple analogy to this process of generating social power is seen in the everyday task of lifting a heavy object. A box that one person cannot lift alone, can be carried by four people together. When the four individuals, who represent society here, come together, and aspire to lift the object, they exert themselves and energy is released. When each directs it towards lifting the object, the energy becomes a force. When all four lift the object, at the same time from four different sides, the force is organized, and the power thus generated lifts the box. This coordination of four individuals gives the power to do something which none of the four can individually accomplish.

In this way, society is a huge reservoir of all our energies, skills, capacities, knowledge, intelligence and aspirations. A group of people lifting an object, and the old minister stationing hundred men on hundred towers are simplistic models. Society is filled with more complex organizations – family, market, trade, industry, economy, government, army, law, education, value systems – that focus and organize human energy so that individual human capital is transformed into social capital. The quality of the organization through which the energy passes decides the quality of the power that issues. The knowledge with which the power is directed and administered decides the productivity of the power. Over time humanity has evolved more and more effective forms of social organization.

7. Coordination
The idea of four people lifting a heavy object together is so simple that there hardly seems to be any theory behind it. But this marks an important step in the evolution of society. By coordinating the efforts of many people, society acquires capacities that are not available when everyone acts in isolation. When the caveman went out in search of food, if he came across a lion, or a pack of lions, that could be the end of his story. If on the other hand, he found a deer, he could chase it or aim a spear at it, and if it was too fast for him, he had to try his luck elsewhere. But when two or three men went out together, things became different. One could herd the animal in a direction, another could be ready for it, a third could watch their back, and the bigger the group, the stronger and safer they all became, and more effective became the hunt. When the hunter gatherers took to farming and settled down in one place, they built their dwellings close together. There was safety in numbers. Villages formed, and collectively, everyone had the protection that the lone individual lacked earlier.

Insurance is another organization that empowers through coordination of another type. It divides the risk among everyone. In return for a small sum, the power of the collective offers everyone the capacity to tide over a heavy personal loss.

A small contribution from many sources amounting to a massive work is seen in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. It is the work of over 30 million editors, 3 million of whom have been active at different times, each contributing a miniscule part of the compilation. No one man or woman is capable of doing this task alone, but each small addition or edit has gradually resulted in this repository that contains 30 million articles in 287 languages. The vastness of Wikipedia is not only because of the internet or the wiki application. Technology is such an integral part of every aspect of our life that it is very easy to explain everything as a result of advances in science. But science itself is a product of social evolution. Before the internet or the wiki, a similar project was carried out. In the mid-19th century, Professor James Murray led a literary project that similarly drew from the knowledge, expertise and time of tens of thousands of people. He gave an open call for volunteers to submit all the words they knew in the English language, along with the first known use of the word, its origin, meaning, usage and so on. This project received over six million submissions over a period of 70 years, and became the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

By coordinating us and our efforts, society has generated remarkable power, with which it empowers each one of us.

World Agriculture 2030 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, August 20, 2002
Georges Ifrah, The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer (New York: John Wiley, 2000), 577

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