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Reading Power and Love in Asia

Adam Kahane
October, 2015


I wrote "Power and Love" over several years by reflecting on my own experiences, successful and unsuccessful, of trying to effect social change. Berrett-Koehler published the English edition in 2010, with several translations appearing soon thereafter, and in the months that followed I gave over 100 talks about this work to audiences around the world. Through these in-person interactions with many thoughtful people, I came to see more clearly the essence of the dynamics of power and love.

I now think of power and love as describing a fundamental structure of social reality. We can see this if we understand that all social entities—individuals, groups, communities, organizations, societies, etc.—are holons: entities that are both wholes in themselves and also parts of larger wholes. For example, I am a whole in myself and also part of my family, my family is a whole in itself and part of our community, and so on. All social entities are characterized both by wholeness and partness.

In this book I define power, following Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, as “the drive of everything living to realize itself,” and love as “the drive towards the unity of the separated.” Using the language of holons, power is the drive of every holon to realize itself and so expresses that holon’s wholeness. Love, by contrast, is the drive of every holon to unite with others and so expresses its partness. These simple definitions show why it is nonsensical to try to effect social change by working only with power or only with love; it would be like trying to breath only by exhaling or only by inhaling. The primary argument of this book is that the only way to effect generative social change is by employing both power and love.

I was curious to see how this argument, framed in Tillich’s Christian definitions, would be understood in Asia, and so I paid particular attention during the question and answer sessions that followed my talks in Japan, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I observed that the permanent tensions between the drives to wholeness and partness was widely and keenly felt. One participant in a session in Tokyo, a man who by his unconventional attire appeared to be intent on his own self-expression and self-realization (his wholeness), spoke of his anguish at his five-year-old son having come home from school saying, “Daddy, if I don’t learn how to read the air [i.e., to fit into the social whole, to express my partness], then I will be dead.” And many conversations in both Bangkok and Singapore revolved around the challenge of reconciling the rights and freedoms of individuals with the harmony and unity of the nation.

In this book I employ precise, even mathematical, definitions of power and love. I am trying to rehabilitate these important, common words which have come to be used in so many different and confusing ways. Some readers of the book have suggested what I think are misleading analogies, such as to task vs. relationship or to the interactions between parents and children. The most useful analogies I have heard are power and love being like masculine and feminine or like yang and yin.

Power and love refer, therefore, to fundamental and universal aspects of social reality. The five years of experience I have had since the publication of the first edition of this book has increased my confidence that people interested in understanding and effecting social change need to grasp and work with these phenomena.

This note is the preface to the Chinese edition of "Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change," forthcoming in 2016 from the CP Yen Foundation.

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