Coercive Power: The Power of the Closed Fist

The love of power [. . .] is a closed  method, made self-assertive, aggressive--the method of the closed fist.

--E. Graham Howe and L. LeMesurien, The Open Way: A Study of Acceptance*


"The love of power." 

Just what sort of power does the love of power love? Power in what sense?

The power that the love of power loves is the power to subjugate, to impose one's will. The love of power is the love of dominance, of control. The power at issue is the power to manipulate, to put in service to one's will, to make into a means for achieving some selfish end. 

The power that the love of power loves is coercive power, the power of the closed fist.

closed fist.jpeg

To coerce is "to control, restrain, shut up together." The word comes from Latin: com-, "together," plus arcere, "to enclose, confine, contain, ward off," which itself derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *ark, "to hold, contain, guard."

Coercive power is the power to coerce, to enclose, control, restrain, and shut up together. It is an imprisoning power. 

The greater coercive power grows, the greater the number of those it puts behind bars, and the greater the number of bars with which it contains them. Eventually, those over whom coercive power is exercised can no longer even see the world beyond the bars that enclose them, confining them in their prisons. Their world itself shrinks down to the size of their prison cell. They become just like the panther in the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, in Rilke's poem by that name (in the translation by Stanley Applebaum):

His gaze against the sweeping of the bars
has grown so weary, it can hold no more.
To him, there seem to be a thousand bars
and back behind those thousand bars no world.

The soft, the supple step and sturdy pace,
that in the smallest of all circles turns,
moves like a dance of strength around a core
in which a mighty will is standing stunned.

Only at times the pupil’s curtain slides
up soundlessly—. An image enters then,
goes through the tensioned stillness of the limbs—
and in the heart ceases to be.

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Coercive power, the power of the closed fist, debilitates. It weakens, enfeebles. It incapacitates that to which it is applied, seeking to dominate it and subordinate it to itself, limiting, restraining, and forcing it into confinement, denying it freedom to open and flower to develop its own full capacities. 

So the power at issue in the love of power is coercive power. It is power in the sense of sheer force, the power that forces itself upon others without regard to their interests. It is the power of the closed fist, which endows itself with the status of "law" then uses all the means it has to en-force.

Toward that end, the coercive power of the closed fist establishes such institutions as the police (aptly named "law enforcement officers") and the military.  He** who has the greatest power in the coercive sense of the word, is he who carries the biggest stick--to borrow an image from Theodore Roosevelt, who was himself no stranger to coercive power. He is most powerful who has the most firepower: "the biggest bully on the block." 

In turn, the love at issue in the love of power is indistinguishable from lust, which would be a less potentially misleading word to use in the context. It is "love" in the sense of the desire to possess, to own, to manipulate and control for one's own pleasure--a jealous, self-defensive desire to dominate.    


*London: John M. Watkins, 1939 (4th impression, 1958), p. 33. I thank my friend Russel E. Shaw for calling my attention to this book only last year. Russ was an Air Force Colonel during the war in Vietnam, where he gained first-hand, in-depth experience of the operations of coercive power, the power of the closed fist. After that, he became a counselor, coming to know and to practice the exercise of conducive power, the power of the open hand.

**I deliberately use the masculine pronoun here, as by far the most historically appropriate.