Alvin Toffler’s “PowerShift” … 25 Core Assumptions


I am a fan of Alvin Toffler’s ‘futuring’ work, and consider PowerShift – Knowledge, Wealth and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century a seminal work.  I have read it 5 or 6 times (just finished it again), and I get something new and interesting out of it each time.

This time I concentrated, reading slowly, on an appendix immediately following the concluding paragraphs of the main text.  It is titled “Assumptions”.

Note the emphasis on people, not technology … though the interlinked digital infrastructure amplifies the issues considerably, IMHO.  New set of conditions, etc.

First, we shape our structures .. then, they shape us.

I have typed the ‘Assumptions’ section, reproduced here in case you are interested.


PowerShift – Assumptions

1. Power is inherent in all social systems and in all human relationships.  It is not a thing but an aspect of any and all relationships among people. Hence it is inescapable and neutral, intrinsically neither good nor bad.

2. The ‘power system’ includes everyone – no one is free of it.  But one person’s power loss is not always another’s gain.

3. The power system in any society is subdivided into smaller and smaller power subsystems nested within one another (my note .. some call this ‘holarchy’).  Feedback links these subsystems to one another, and to the larger systems of which they are part.  Individuals are embedded in many different, though related, power subsystems.

4. The same person may be power-rich at home and power-poor at work, and so forth.

5. Because human relationships are constantly changing, power relationships are also in constant process.

6. Because people have needs and desires, those who can fulfill them hold potential power.  Social power is exercised by supplying or withholding the desired or needed items and experiences.

7. Because needs and desires are highly varied, the ways of meeting or denying them are also extremely varied.  There are, therefore, many different ‘tools’ or ‘levers’ of power.  Among them, however, violence, wealth and knowledge are primary.  Most other power resources derive from these.

8. Violence, which is chiefly used to punish, is the least versatile source of power.  Wealth, which can be used to both reward and punish, and which can be converted into many other resources, is a far more flexible tool of power. Knowledge, however, is the most versatile and basic since it can help one avert challenges that might require the use of violence and wealth, and can often be used too persuade others to perform in desired ways out of perceived self-interest.  Knowledge yields the highest quality power.

9. The relationship of classes, races, genders, professions, nations, and other social groupings are incessantly altered by shifts in population, ecology, technology, culture, and other factors.  These changes lead to conflict and translate into redistribution of power resources.

10. Conflict is an inescapable social fact.

11. Power struggles are not necessarily bad.

12. Fluctuations caused by simultaneous shifts of power in different subsystems may converge to produce radical shifts of power at the level of the larger system of which they are a part.  This principle operates at all levels,. Intra-psychic conflict within an individual  can tear a whole family apart, power conflict among departments can tear a company apart, power struggles among regions can tear a nation apart.

13. At any given moment some of the many power subsystems that comprise the larger system are in relative equilibrium whilke others are in a far-from equilibrial condition.  Equilibrium is not necessarily a virtue.

14. When power systems are far-from-equilibrial, sudden, seemingly bizarre shifts may occur.  This is because when a system or subsystem is highly unstable, nonlinear effects multiply.  Big power inputs may yield small results.  Small events can trigger the downfall of a regime.  A slice of burnt toast can lead to a divorce.

15. Chance matters.  The more unstable the system, the more chance matters.

16. Equality of power is an improbably condition.  even if it is achieved, chance will immediately produce new inequalities.  So will attempts to rectify old inequalities.

17. Inequalities at one level can be balanced out at another level.  for this reason, it is possible for a power balance to exist between two or more entities, even when inequalities exist among their various subsystems.

18. It is virtually impossible for all social systems and subsystems to be simultaneously in perfect balance and for power to be share equally among all groups.  Radical action may be needed to overthrow an oppressive regime, but some degree of inequality is a function of change itself.

19. Perfect equality implies changelessness, and is not only impossible but undesirable.  In a world in which millions starve, the idea of stopping change is not only futile but immoral.  The existence of some degree of inequality is not, therefore, inherently immoral; what is immoral is a system that freezes the maldistribution of those resources that give power.  It is doubly immoral when that maldistribution is based on race, gender or other inborn traits.

20.  Knowledge is even more maldistributed than arms and wealth.  Hence a redistribution of knowledge (and especially knowledge about knowledge) is even more important than, and can lead to, a redistribution of the other main power resources.

21. Overconcentration of power resources is dangerous.  (examples: Stalin, Hitler, and so on.  Other examples too numerous to itemize).

22. Underconcentration of power resources is equally dangerous. The absence of strong governments in Lebanon has turned that poor nation into a synonym for anarchic violence.  scores of groups vie for power without reference to any agreed conception of law or justice or any enforceable constitutional or other restrictions.

23. If both overconcentration and underconcentration of power result in social horror, how much concentrated power is too much ?  Is there a moral basis for judging ?  The moral basis for judging whether power is over – or under-concentrated is directly related to the difference between ‘socially necessary order’ and ‘surplus order’.

24. Power granted to a regime should be just sufficient to provide a degree of safety from real (not imagined) external threat., plus a modicum of internal order and civility.  This degree of order is socially necessary, and hence morally justifiable.

25. There is a moral basis for opposing or even overthrowing the state that imposes ‘surplus order’.



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