Power is power. – Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones
Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value. – Frank Underwood, House of Cards
Power is probably one of the most popular and disputed topic in philosophy, social science and humanities since time immemorial. It is also well received in popular literature; sometimes even the source of fantastic elements that permeate in pop-culture.
George Lucas’ use of the concept force, an invisible, infinite, and guiding preternatural power, is a good example of this popularization. Derivatives like mana or chakra or spiritual energy (in general) are recurring concepts in our cinema, books, and graphic novels (especially those with deep Asian influence/grounding). The same is also true if we look at the large corpus of published manga (Japanese comic book) that we have today. This article even started by quoting popular lines from TV series.
This continuum of conceptions makes the idea of power very hard to delineate. Its meaning and significance transform depending on the social and cultural contexts where it is being enacted and performed. According to sociologist Benedict Anderson (probably one of the most famous scholars in the field of social sciences), the notions and meanings of power purported between Western and Eastern cultures are very different. In his seminal essay titled The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture (1972), Anderson argues that Javanese idea of power is not only different to that of the West (which has evolved since the Middle Ages) but also with diametrically opposed tenets.
Javanese refers to a particular ethnic identity located in Java, Indonesia. Their idea of power may not only be limited to Indonesia for it may extend to the larger part of Southeast Asian region – especially those located within the archipelagic zones.
Western versus Javanese Idea of Power
We can better understand the Javanese idea of power by drawing a schematic contrast between the Javanese system and the systems of modern European conceptualization. This schematic framing can be summarized into four main categories, namely: (i) abstract vs concrete, (ii) heterogeneous source vs homogenous source, (iii) unlimited acquisition vs limited acquisition, (iv) morally ambiguous vs absence of legitimacy. After the discussion of these four, we will look at the reason why their notion is very different from that of West.
i. ‘Power is abstract’ vs ‘Power is concrete’
Western idea of power is heavily dependent on the interactions of individuals. It is surely rare for Europeans to conceive power as something out there (in existence without the presence of human agency). Power is normally associated to people; and people can only exercise this power by relating to other people. Power, then, becomes an abstraction. It is not necessary a certain human or object, but their interrelationship. For instance, a CEO of a company is not necessarily powerful without his/her staff and employee. The asymmetrical relationship of the CEO and the employee allows the former to exercise his power over the latter. Thus, it is all about relating to other people. It is abstract in a sense. It ceases to exist without an existing social linkage. To quote a popular TV series line, “Everything in this world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” Biological determinism aside (pointing to the idea that humans exist to have sex – for the continuation of genetic line of course!), this line perfectly encapsulates why relationships are also about power play. It is not as simple as a romantic interaction because it is also a space where control persists.
For the Javanese, however, power is concrete. It may pertain to the relationship of people (like that of the West) but it is mostly independent of its possible user. Power is perceived as tangible, mysterious, and divine energy that animates everything. Sounds mystical? Yes, it is. They associate power to a larger universe to begin with, not persons and linkages. For the Javanese, power can be manifested not only by people but also objects.
Power can be imbued to amulets and weapons. It can manifest within the body of human dwarves or blind persons. Because it is physical, it can be acquired. It can also be centered into a particular locale. In this case, power is very concrete.
ii. ‘Heterogeneous source’ versus ‘Homogenous source’
In the Western world, a person can gain power by amassing wealth, social status, formal office, joining organizations, acquiring weapons, controlling populations, and so forth. A politician can gain more power, for instance, by creating wider political capital (translated as connections) and running for higher office. Aside from that, he/she can also accumulate wealth and social status to strengthen his/her power-holdings. Sources are heterogeneous and can be acquired non-endlessly (which is connected to the third category).
The second tenet reflects how Javanese people reckon their cosmology. Power is homogenous for them. Power originates from a same source and presents the same type. Though it can be imbued to objects (and persons), its source is the greater flow that exists as the focal part of the whole universal order. To put it simply, the very source of power is the universe (though it can be transferred to other vessels/bodies). Thus, the source is perceived as homogenous.
iii. ‘Accumulation of power has no inherent limits’ vs ‘Limited quantity’
Since power is deemed as an abstraction in the West, and not a material capital, it is not self-limiting. This means that the accumulation of power from different sources (since it is inherently heterogeneous) goes without limitation. A businessman can acquire real estate properties as much as possible assuming that he/she has the monetary capacity. In a more militaristic vista, a country can increase its power by acquiring more warfare implements like fighter plants, nuclear warheads, and creating well-positioned political alliances. Thus, the amount of power that we have in the world today surpasses that of yesterday and will also be surpassed in the future.
This is not true for the Javanese. They believe that a person cannot gain power without someone losing theirs. Power is seen as constant in total quantity. For them, cosmos is neither expanding nor contracting. In this context, the amount of power remains fixed since power animates the cosmos. It is not subject to change but it can only be distributed or redistributed. For a person to gain a power, some other person should also lose their share. It is not rare that they associate the luck of an individual to the downfall of others. Equivalent exchange?
iv. ‘Power is morally ambiguous’ vs ‘Power is without inherent moral implications’
The genocide of the Jewish population during WW1 is negatively attributed to Adolf Hitler. During this period, Hitler was actually as one of the most powerful and influential leader in the globe. Yet, his use of power has always been subjected to criticism and opposition. This chunk of Western history tells us that power is not inherently legitimate. Power can be bad or good, depending on its ethical and moral underpinnings. Raising the question, “what kinds of power are legitimate/illegitimate?”
Fascinatingly, Javanese worldview do not frame power in such light. It is even perceived as a matter without any inherent moral implication. Power is not necessarily bad or good. Since power is derived from a single source, it then antecedes the question of good and evil. Still, they believe that the lack of ascetic practices will eventually erode one’s power. Thus, despite the lack of moral implications, they are tasked to use their power into something good and self-less.
These categories tell us that different cultures view social constructs differently. The definition of power, in this case, is heavily shaped by cultural and historical underpinnings. For the Javanese people, the idea of power transcends the everyday body politic and social relationships. Power is seen as part of the cosmological and spiritual realm. It may be imbued into physical objects but its source is homogenous and finite.
This variation of perspective tells us that there is no such thing as universal truth when we talk about culture. Local concepts and logic will always vary. What is logical for one culture may be silly to others, and vice versa. The plethora of partial truth resonates the chaos and beauty of cultures around the world.