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Political Science


The political and social world in which we live and act is partly constituted by the words we use and the way we use them. What power is and how power works is shaped by what we collectively think it is and how we think it works.

This essay revisits the question of whether power should be understood as inherently zero-sum (gains for some entailing equivalent losses for others) or variable-sum (both mutual gains and mutual losses of power are possible). The zero-sum assumption is very old (predating by thousands of years the game-theoretic shorthand) and draws its force from the prevalence of conflict, inequality, and the possibility of violence in political and social life. But the zero-sum view cannot explain the blend of conflict and cooperation characteristic of many important power relations – including the rule-bound political competition of democracy.

Challenges to the zero-sum view are relatively recent and in most cases briefly outlined rather than fully-developed. The two most elaborate variable-sum theories, those of Talcott Parsons and Hannah Arendt, are insightful but flawed.

Through critical analysis of power literature on both sides of the zero-sum question (including the “three faces of power” debate, international relations theory, and extended commentary on Parsons and Arendt) the paper attempts to clear the way for a more persuasive variable-sum theory than has hitherto appeared.


NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Journal of Political Power. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published as:

Read, James H. 2012. "Is Power Zero-Sum or Variable-Sum? Old Arguments and New Beginnings." Journal of Political Power 5(1):5-31.