Beyond Independence

We Are Most Free When We Are Most Bound to Others

Power is typically approached as a question of dominance and submission. Power is marked by the ability to impose or the ability to resist that imposition. This is what some have called “power-over,” ((The power-over/power-with distinction is usually credited to Mary Parker Follett, a theorist, political organizer, and social activist who wrote several influential books in the first half of the twentieth century. The terms are used today in a variety of academic, political, and business settings. I first encountered this term in discussions with feminist activists. For a review, see “Feminist Perspectives on Power,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, October 2005.)) which assumes a zero-sum game in which individuals are always in competition for that power—someone dominates and someone submits. In such a world, one can use this kind of power with varying levels of responsibility to others, but in such a world it is inevitable that power routinely will be used unjustly. Because there is always the threat that some other person or group can grab the power, these kinds of systems will encourage people to seek always more power. This is readily evident, for example, in the emergence of the United States as the dominant power after World War II. Even though it was clear the United States could have lived relatively secure in the world with its considerable wealth and extensive resources, that status was instead a source of anxiety in a power-over world, as seen in this conclusion of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in 1947: “To seek less than preponderant power would be to opt for defeat. Preponderant power must be the object of U.S. policy.” ((Quoted in Melvyn Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1992), pp. 18-19.))

That’s the logic of power-over: One either dominates or eventually is dominated. The potential of a challenge from below means that no amount of power is enough; more always must be accumulated to ward off threats. Along the way, people pursuing these goals tend to justify the concentration of power as in the best interests of all; the enlightened ones with the power tell us that they will use it benevolently in the interests not just of themselves but also those less fortunate. All of human history argues against having faith in this power-seeking, with its accompanying hubris and self-delusion. But history is conveniently ignored by the powerful as they congratulate themselves on their vision and fortitude, while at the same time they work feverishly to propagandize the powerless, lest those below see the shell game for what it is and rebel.

It’s tempting to say that this power-over exercised on earth is illusory, that real power rests with God or on some other plane of existence. The problem, of course, is that the suffering caused by the exercise of power-over is not illusory and does not exist at some other level. It is felt by people and other living things in the here-and-now. The need to challenge power-seeking, domination, and injustice is not otherworldly but of this world. Still, it is not merely rhetorical to mark that power-over is dead power. It is ultimately the power of death, and also is a power that comes only to those whose souls are dead. The poet Muriel Rukeyser expressed clearly the nature of this power and why we should reject it:

Dead power is everywhere among us—in the forest, chopping down the songs; at night in the industrial landscape, wasting and stiffening a new life; in the streets of the city, throwing away the day. We wanted something different for our people: not to find ourselves an old, reactionary republic, full of ghost-fears, the fears of death and the fears of birth. We want something else. ((Muriel Rukeyser, quoted in Adrienne Rich, What is Found There (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), page preceding preface. Originally published in The Life of Poetry (New York: Current Books, 1949).))

We want something else, but our systems and institutions rarely provide it. Even the church itself, where we might assume we could find that “something else,” is mired in a domination/subordination dynamic. Much Christian theology is rooted in the idea that people are so inherently evil that we must subordinate ourselves to God, and then—convenient for church officials—to a calcified dogma and doctrine propagated by the church. It shouldn’t be surprising that this conception of Christianity coexists comfortably with the power-over exercised by the contemporary nation-state and corporation. These groups of elites—political, economic, religious—take for themselves the right to dominate in their arena, eyeing the other elites nervously, knowing they must collaborate with each other but always aware they also are in nervous competition in the struggle for primacy. Such is the nature of life, even for the ultra-privileged, in a power-over world.

We must give this kind of system its due: Clearly, a system based on power-over can be productive—it can extract resources from the earth and energy from people to produce a vast array of goods and services, which brings some benefits to some people. But just as clearly, such a system can never be truly creative—it cannot create a world in which all people flourish, create new ways of understanding, or create solutions to the problems power-over inevitably generates. Such flourishing, understanding, and problem-solving come not from power-over but from power-with, an understanding of power not based in assertions of independence and destructive dominance but in an embrace of interdependence and creative cooperation.

In a hyper-individualized society based on capitalism’s glorification of greed, it’s not surprising that an adolescent conception of selfish independence would define our political and economic institutions and dominate our cultural imagination. Of course the struggle for a certain kind of independence—being free from the imposition of power-over—is not a trivial matter; we see what inhumanity is possible when people are not truly free to act as individuals, and we know that independence at the personal level matters in our lives. Yet we all know that we are not independent beings but profoundly interdependent with each other, other organisms, and the non-living world. The task is to create a system that gives us freedom from the illegitimate authority that people and institutions attempt to impose on us, but recognizes our obligations to each other. One way to think through this is to imagine what a world would look like if power were not “over” but “with,” if we understood that our power can be magnified in collaboration with others.

Even in the midst of a capitalist economy structured on power-over, experiments in power-with go forward, such as worker cooperatives that are owned and controlled by members. The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives estimates that there are more than 300 such democratic workplaces in the United States, employing 3,500 people and generating about $400 million in annual revenues, mostly concentrated in the Northeast, West Coast and Upper Midwest. Worker cooperatives tend to create stable jobs, foster sustainable business practices, and support linkages among different segments of the community. The principles articulated by the federation capture the spirit behind, and organization of, cooperatives: voluntary and non-discriminatory open membership; control by members; equitable and democratic control of capital; commitment to education and training of members; cooperation with other cooperatives; and a commitment to sustainable community development. ((United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives, “About Worker Cooperatives.” See also, International Organization of Industrial, Artisan and Service Producers’ Cooperatives, “World Declaration on Cooperative Worker Ownership,” February 2004.))

One exciting example of this model is Green Worker Cooperatives, which was established to incubate worker-owned and environmentally friendly cooperatives in the South Bronx. The first cooperative they launched, the ReBuilders Source, is a retail warehouse for surplus and salvaged building materials recovered from construction and demolition jobs. In the Green Worker Cooperatives’ own words:

Our approach is a response to high unemployment and decades of environmental racism. We don’t have the luxury to wait for new alternatives. That’s why we’re creating them. We believe that in order to address our environmental and economic problems we need new ways to earn a living that don’t require polluting the earth or exploiting human labor. ((Green Worker Cooperative, “Advocating Zero Waste.”))

For many, it’s Forhard to imagine working in institutions based on real cooperation because the society in which we live is structured on such a different notion. Yet if we think of experiences when we feel authentically most at home—not just our home with family, but with friends, in political groups, at church, in a community association—we typically feel powerful not because we can force people to do things or can ignore other people’s needs in our decisions; we feel powerful when we come together with others to create something we couldn’t have created alone.

Though it sounds paradoxical in this culture, this leads to an important insight:

We are most free when we are most bound to others.

When bonds are created under conditions of mutual respect and shared power, our freedom is deepened by such interdependence. Our strength is not sapped by these bonds but is enhanced by the emergent properties of collective human action. The individual efforts of numerous people cannot simply be added together and plugged into an equation to predict the outcome, but rather their simple actions come together in a collective result that is novel and irreducible. The most creative force does not come from a power, centralized either in one person or one institution and its bureaucracy, which imposes its will on others and treats people as inputs whose energy can be plugged into a formula for production. The most creative force comes from distributed power that channels the contributions of many into ends that people define collectively. This goes against the cultural icon of the heroic figure, who may enlist the help of others but, in the end, draws on a power that is individual and ultimately in conflict with other power in the world. Heroic figures typically are overrated, as those who are put in that role often understand. In Brecht’s play Galileo, the famed scientist’s assistant is devastated when Galileo recants his scientific beliefs under threat from the Inquisition. Andrea confronts Galileo: “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo responds, “No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” ((Bertolt Brecht, Galileo (New York: Grove Press, 1940), p. 115.))

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on July 4th, 2009 at 10:55am #

    The underlying idea here is the one which inspires and sustains the European Union: make European countries so dependent on each other that they cannot realistically make war on each other. The Swiss, for example, have not been at war since 1515! Americans need to shake off the colonial “kill or be killed” mentality and become, well, … independent!

  2. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on July 4th, 2009 at 12:43pm #

    this is the second time i have encountered in alternate media the word “interdependence”.

    so, we want US also to think as being interdependent. US was deemed by many as an exception and exceptional.
    at one time, decades ago, i thought so also.
    we are OK. We are what nature made us. But as jensen also points out, the clergy began to teach us that we are evil, unruly, lost, etc., and thus needed ‘god’ {read: obey priests} in our lives.

    meanwhile, as also jensen confirms, a few psychopaths begun to usurp our trust of one another and our pristine interdependence; establishing second tier of despots which from that time united in oppressing people.

    euro nations are indeed now more interdependent than ever but sadly, as events in afgh’n prove, strongly fascist or still deluded by clero-political-psychotic class of life. Sad. The madness continues but once again against the weakest among us. damn all these gangsters. tnx

  3. Danny Ray said on July 4th, 2009 at 2:47pm #

    Sorry Michael,The Congress of Vienna in 1815 is what put an end to The Swiss wars. They had been an adventurous lot until then, in the treaty the swiss garenteed to not go to war outside of their own country. with the exception of the swiss guards for the Vatican. and even since then they have not been reticent about shooting each other.

  4. Tennessee-With-Zelaya said on July 6th, 2009 at 7:35pm #


    We are in a world of paradigm shift. Where conservative, right-wing elitist ideology is fading away. It is fading away because we are living in a sort of enlightenment period again. (But this time brought to the masses by the internet, economic collapse and the sharing of knowledge. Which produces an objective revolutionary situation)

    The old right-wing system of the XX Century will fade away. Right-wing ideology is anti-scientific, not backed by science and proofs. But backed by Domination Theology Churches (Right wing classist, elitist churches)

    People are waking up and rejecting The Republican Party and all philosophical and political systems that deffend the rich people and oppress the majority which are poors.

    And don’t worry people. The collapse of the US dollar and the coming hyper-inflation will make Republican Party religious zionist voters and lunatic evangelical zealots, into socialists. Sooner or later the US citizens will be necessarily forced to look toward people like Ralph Nader, Cynthia Mckinney, The Green Party, The Socialist Party of USA and other Third Political Party alternatives as an escape out of this barbaric capitalist hell of Democrats and Republicans which have only brought to all US citizens, poverty, misery, diabetes, obesity, an epidemia of heart-related deaths and illnesses, foreclosures, tent cities, 20% of unemployment, 80 millions of americans in poverty, and 1 out of 6 american children starving. While a minority which is about 2% to 5% of the USA population is getting richer, and richer and richer. While the rest of americans is getting poorer, poorer and poorer.

    In other words. capitalism in USA is only making us poorer and poorer.


  5. Melissa said on July 6th, 2009 at 9:46pm #

    I’d like to borrow some faith, Tennessee. I am worried that as USAers get poorer, they will become more rigid and fearful.

    I hope you are correct.


  6. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on July 7th, 2009 at 12:28pm #

    it is not capitalism or constitution that makes us richer or poorer- it is solely people who do that.
    it is people who wage wars, agree, disagree, hate, etc.
    it is people who interpret the constitution [and not the constitution self] who permit other people to attack innocent peoples thousands of kms away from US.

    it is not even god that wages wars but once again solely the people.
    there is no hell or heaven- only hellish and heavenly people.
    but, sadly, we may have only a dozen sane/heavenly people in US and 300mn hellish ones.
    as we look at people who are farther and farther away from hellish amers, we may discover more and more heavenly people. tnx

  7. Deadbeat said on July 7th, 2009 at 12:38pm #

    it is not capitalism or constitution that makes us richer or poorer- it is solely people who do that.

    That that begs to ask the question why do “people” behave that way or is it just “innate” to “people”?

    Apparently some “people” are MORE POWERFUL than others. Therefore that bring us right back to ideology and the systems of control.

  8. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on July 7th, 2009 at 4:24pm #

    yes, DB,
    we humans- just like lions which kill ‘cruelly’ a bull- are, to me, part of an infinitely-valued nature.
    A nature that does so much good to us and so much badness to us.
    yes, it is nature that makes us trusting and interdependent. And it is nature which s’mhow makes psychotic people who usurp our trust to the degree that the psychos have enslaved us for millennia and of late enserfed us; probably for millennia or forever?!?!
    OK! this is just one person’s explanation! However, this does not mean that we do not have latent abilities to lessen our evil doings and increase our good deeds.
    i am not prophecying it, tho! Anybody out there who dares speak up on this interpretation of nature/people?
    but first have a bottle of red wine and a sex-starved individual. No, i don’t care if it is dog, man, woman.
    i am, self, no longer of kissing age! And even with viagra. Remember you ‘jews’ yahweh can take care of everything. The only thing he can’t go without is the viagra.
    so, why complain/rage against a godless nonhebraic like me when one has his/her jewishnes/judaism/yahweh? tnx

  9. Deadbeat said on July 8th, 2009 at 1:46am #


    I haven’t given up on humanity.


  10. Melissa said on July 8th, 2009 at 7:56am #

    I still think the decent people outnumber the vile. But, as others have said, we are often disinformed and ignorant.

    If we continue to do things the same way, expecting different results, we’re all going to pay for our stupidity. I think mandatory schooling and standardized curriculum handed down from the Fed level, designed by commerce interests and sociologists/psychologists, are a great part of the problem. Schooling the masses, from their tiny youth, creates culture according to the whims of the spiritually bereft posers that profit from a divided, underdeveloped and confused population.

    We need to teach our children disobedience, among other things. Most people think if they don’t follow along with the prescribed program (shots, primary/secondary schooling, standardized tests) that all doors will be shut for them. That is a view that sees money and other expensive pieces of paper as the end goal.

    Individual independence makes successful communities and positive interdependence. Without solid individuals, all we are is a herd of homogeny that waits to be told what to do and think. Group identity, without individual empowerment and sense of responsibility, is what schools are pushing. It’s not good.


  11. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on July 8th, 2009 at 9:04am #

    as an aside, i’ve been thinking that the nukes israel may have won’t be of any use to israelis, since the world plutos who, i assume, very much like to live and enjoy their country sides, golf courses, social clubs in which to flaunt their wealth and importance, wld not allow judaists&co.
    to even threaten thier lifestyles let alone destroy any of their countries and their very being.

    so, nuclear weapons even for US might not be of that much importance since its use by US in first strike action wld endager rich as much as poor unless they’d be able to go to moon or stay for a while in an orbit.
    this is one reason why US is going into outer space: to evacuate plutos to safety and then launch a devastating nuke attack against hapless countries or even continents.
    perhaps, plutos might OK or abide by small dirty bombs if they can be manufactured.

    but just one or sevceral bombs that cld destroy large area probably won’t be deliberately used. If US is going to use them, they wld probably use thousands. And accidents happen also!
    oh my devil! He’s happy as a lark once it all starts! tnx