Owned and Borrowed Power

Chess Player, photo by Jeswin Thomas

Networks of influence and influence hierarchies are something that are well-known, and well understood in principle, but specificities around what the peak of any such network would look like – are often elusive. There may be disagreement on whether, in practice, a large number of small nodes exist, or one great network in which one individual is only a relative player – but it can be made relatively uncontroversial what different categories of power consist of, and under which circumstances. This is what I will look to do, and hopefully aid in the analysis of power networks, perhaps even providing some insight on how one might acquire more meaningful forms of power, rather than ephemeral ones, even if that takes the form of stating plainly what is intuitively understood. Much of this is transplanted from, and built upon; Samo Burja’s Great Founder Theory.

In talking about power, one’s mind may immediately jump to force, money, and status, and while these are valid forms, power is much more fundamental. It consists of the ability to will something, and have it be carried out or otherwise more generally manifest. This covers either power held to personally generate an outcome with a skill, or the authority to command or persuade others to do it on one’s own behalf.

Quite simply, owned power is that which is not beholden or answerable to some higher power, whereas borrowed power exists is typically delegate, or otherwise contingent on some higher authority – either its tacit or explicit and ongoing approval. These statuses are always contingent on the frame, however, as power may be considered owned at one scale, and borrowed at a higher scale, or looking into the longer term, or under slightly different conditions. To illustrate, in most scenarios; money is an owned form of power, but under collapse conditions, or hyperinflation, the value of that money decreases drastically. Conversely, during a collapse scenario, the custodians of certain physical assets such as military vehicles become the de facto owners – as happened during the collapse of the Soviet Union, where the officers in charge of various military bases (usually answerable to a strict hierarchy) were able to sell their equipment for private gain without consequence. 

Beginning with owned power: put simply, it is inalienable ability or leverage. This need not be absolute, but that it is not something which requires constant validation by another source. Money, skills, innate qualities, ownership, or force all constitute forms of owned power, but quite particularly: persuasion. This is because persuasion is one of the most versatile and powerful forms of owned power. Using owned power, larger structures can be created through which one first converts power into other forms and magnifies it (for example skills into money, or persuasiveness into legal precedent) and then becomes a patron themselves, loaning power to others. No doubt this is one of the most familiar methods of acquiring what we would easily identify as owned power. Borrowed power meanwhile, consists mainly of positions within a larger structure, and one with some sort of accountability structure.

Owned power, where it exists, is quite clearly preferable, but borrowed power does potentially have some distinct advantages. For the man inhabiting the position of borrowed power, such as a manager position in a firm – above shop-floor employees, but below the owner – he may enjoy many of the benefits of power such as prestige, status, and reward without having to build the rest of the infrastructure which is required to facilitate it. This is even more pertinent in the case of a man possessing particular skills which are highly valuable, but not easily convertible into other forms of power or reward without a large number of other inputs. An example of this might be certain fields such as geology, which require large investments, and involve negotiating complicated permissions and regulations in order to be made profitable via resource extraction. A geologist certainly can become an independent prospector, but a quicker and surer path to monetising this expertise is to accept a position in an existing firm, which would usually also come with responsibilities, and expectations. In certain scenarios, this in itself can be an improvement, if the expectations are commiserated with one’s intrinsic motivations. If a salesman values the intrinsic feeling of outcompeting the rest of the office on sales – it greatly benefits both parties, and the theoretical trade-off of, say, being expected to consistently be in the top 50% of salesmen in the office – will likely not be perceived as a trade-off at all. 

Where there is a conflict between the two parties, matters will be more difficult. In such a scenario, and perhaps naturally according to the incentives; information becomes a key deciding factor. Borrowed power typically comes with delegated authority, but that power will still be expected to be used according to the desires of the patron, whereas the borrower (or client) has their own interests. What the patron knows of the actions of the client, is the power that can be withdrawn, what he does not know becomes the owned power of the client. Returning to the example of the middle manager: if he were to become a regional manager, he may face a weekly or monthly reporting schedule that revolves around profitability. If the profits remain above the acceptable threshold, and no other matter breaches acceptable tolerances (such as a bad publicity scandal) then all other matters are under the sole discretion of the client manager. Only if the owner patron decides to investigate more closely (perhaps if the profits drop too low) would he discover that the manager has in fact been playing Video Games all day in his office while the employees engage in flagrant company policy violations, in accordance with their own unobserved freedom. 

In this context, it becomes clear why such a major accomplishment and priority of many historic empires has been to maintain a robust, quick postage system, which can ensure that information flows freely enough to keep regional governors on a tight leash. Carrying this same theme into the areas of law, and economics particularly, we find that there has been a long-term (albeit not uninterrupted) trend of converting power that was owned unambiguously, into power which is borrowed – or otherwise contingent on the approval of a higher authority. As an example, one of the central points of deviation on property rights occurred during the transition from so-called ‘feudal’ to so-called ‘absolutist’ regimes – wherein the practical claim was made that the king had the authority to levy taxes on his subjects at his own discretion, rather than funding his state business with revenues from his own private estates, supplemented by additional taxes levied at times of crisis which are limited in duration and scope. In France, this process occurred comparably (but by no means absolutely) smoothly, albeit neither Louis XIV, XV, nor XVI were able to complete the process by removing significant exemptions for the nobility and clergy – until the revolution was able to complete the project. In the British Isles, this process went even less smoothly, with Charles I’s attempt to levy taxes via obscure law and precedent being undermined by sheer financial requirements, which lead directly to the English Civil Wars. Nonetheless, the end result was quite similar; that the state entitles itself to a portion of the proceeds made within its jurisdiction, and the right to confiscate property should this not be paid. Property is therefore held by the continued good graces of the state, not by absolute right. That is – the property that it knows about and can track. This process was perhaps even more extreme under Swedish Absolutism, where – at the height of the organised Carolean Army, Swedish subjects were required to contribute men and supplies (albeit at the level of the small collective, giving some element of voluntarism, compared to the later conscription of the Levee en Masse in Revolutionary France which laid obligations on all), thus presenting one’s own self-determination and autonomy as something at the king’s discretion. 

How to reacquire some modicum of owned power from all this borrowed power then? One of three things must occur: either the higher authority must be unaware, unable, or unwilling to reign in any used freedom. 

For them to be unwilling, they must be either apathetic or sympathetic – the next rung up the chain in particular, but it is possible to appeal to higher rungs in the chain beyond the most immediate one if there is reason to believe that they would be more sympathetic. In previous, more civilised ages, this unwillingness extended to beliefs in a higher authority which they were subject to – some spiritual authority, be that the ancestral customs of the Classical World, or the Divine Authority of Christendom. Perhaps even simple belief in a less grand, secular ideal; up until recently, this is the role played by the Turkish Military in maintaining the secular republican constitution against deviation. However, as previously mentioned, one of the most potent forms of owned power is that of persuasion, and it is largely for this purpose: all of this is inherently negotiable, and so one blessed with a silver tongue will enjoy not only more borrowed power but also far greater ability to negotiate more freedom to operate. At a higher level still, he may even be able to sublimate ostensibly more powerful men to his worldview and bring them under his sway – itself constituting a bringing them under him and into his power. Such is the power of charisma.

Inability is ultimately contingent on physical force, which is why the spectre of a coup by a professional military hangs over nearly every government possessing one until the Western nations perfected the formula – or so they would like to think. Generally speaking, quarrels over legality and precedent become much less pressing at the point of the bayonet. It is not only generals and kings who enjoy this power, however: Interwar Germany, Austria, France, and Italy are replete with armed factions and paramilitaries which could present a very real threat to the state’s ability to wield power. But perhaps even more strikingly, the medieval period presents many cases where the king or some other lord simply lacks the resources to see his will done how he would like. Such was the case in the aftermath of both the first and second phases of the Hundred Years War, where lords particularly in Aquitaine, and Gascony would switch their allegiance between either England or France depending on who could provide the better deal. 

Ordinarily, however, the limits of law, the consciences of the authorities, and the damage compared to gain might have been cited as reasons that a higher authority might be unable to crack down on a deviation, and while cost may still be prohibitive in places (to fire someone from a job, for example), plenty of other tools exist, and the cynical necessities of power are (or at least seem) more pressing than ever, so an appeal to ‘rights’ cannot be relied on in the case of a determined hostile patron or higher authority. And so, as has often been the case in the past: the best option is to ensure that one is – in some way indispensable. Whether that be through known and valuable secrets, or through vital expertise, or an inability to allow an opposing entity to gain the benefit of one’s defection: there is a great deal of owned power to be rendered, even from a borrowed power source in such a scenario. However the more one pushes the boundaries of this relationship, the more one must have an exit or fortification plan, as the impetus and opportunity to replace or neutralise this threat will only grow over time.

The precariousness of all of the aforementioned, particularly in the present, is why it is even more essential to render hostile patrons and authorities as blind as possible. But so too, from the patron perspective, is it all the more essential to make information as transparent (at least, for their eyes to witness) as possible. If all action and communication are recorded and monitored, then there are no hiding deviations from the proscribed course. Such is the double-edged sword of centralised communication networks. Just as; in the past, letters sent through the central postal service might be opened and read; now social media and associated electronic communication systems have enabled back-door or even ongoing monitoring of communications. To alter an old Chinese proverb: the mountains have been flattened, and the emperor is in your pocket. 

At the macro-level, this centralisation of functions down to single nodes through which all must flow – is a reality near at hand. The final veto would be a fully central, fully digital method of financial transaction. Control of that method with enough precision to block single identified individuals would constitute a veto on the ability of someone to conduct any transactions digitally and thus ostracise them from the digital world. All power becomes borrowed power from the owner of this single central node – subject to his whims – whatever they may be, and his access to information. Such a man will have the kind of power that no king or dictator of the most distilled and overbearing tyranny could have ever dreamed of acquiring. And while it would bind the multitude into a grand, perfected super-organism or corpus: if it were done willingly, there would be little need for the coercion. A grand unifying idea, compellingly presented, would function much the same, or better.

For the freedom of action it provides – owned power is preferable to borrowed power in instances where there will be an antagonistic relationship between patron and client, if this is not the case then borrowed power will allow for a much more rapid advancement, and potentially a symbiotic relationship. Owned power even inside borrowed power relationships can be extracted as the difference between what the patron is unwilling to change, unable to, and/or unaware of, versus what they are. In such cases, many of the benefits of borrowed power (in terms of disproportionate influence, prestige, and power in a condensed timescale,) can be enjoyed with minimal inconvenience. Sources of this capability can be found in essential skills which are not easily replaceable, charisma or persuasion, actionable and useful insight or information, and innate desirable characteristics. All are useful in both building an owned structure, and operating inside a borrowing structure, and so should be cultivated where possible. Beyond these innate forms of owned power, resources and money are also potent forms and the most easily and readily convertible into action. Ultimately persuasion is the most potent, because it is the most easily converted into mass, concerted, and coherent action, and because it enjoys no depreciation through its continued use. Whether building, or joining a larger structure, power ownership is fractal, and so the same power will be owned in some contexts and borrowed in others. As such there can be no fully, absolutely owned power, but there can be distance and difficulty created between authorities and subsidiaries. 

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