Powers of the Weak, by Elizabeth Janeway (1980)

Cover of Powers of the WeakI’ve written about many good books on this site over the years, but this may be the most important one, particularly now.

Even when it was first published in 1980, Elizabeth Janeways’s Powers of the Weak was labelled as a feminist tract and fairly quickly dismissed and forgotten. Which was an apt demonstration of the very phenomenon noted in the quote from Victor Turner’s Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture from which Janeway took her title and which she prefaces her book:

INFERIORITY: A value-bearing category that refers to the powers of the weak, countervailing against structural power, fostering continuity, creating the sentiment of the wholeness of the total community, positing the model of an undifferentiated whole whose units are whole human beings. The powers of the weak are often assigned in hierarchic and stratified societies to females, the poor, autochthons [indigenous peoples], and outcasts.

Ironically, Powers of the Weak is actually an intensely empowering book that should inspire hope in anyone who is feeling desparate, hopeless, and voiceless.

“My aim is to understand power,” Janeway writes in her opening chapter, “that ambiguous, menacing, much-desired quality whose accepted definition seems to me unsatisfactory.” Indeed, she immediately rejects the premise that power is a quality or a property and instead defines it as “a process of human interaction”–a dynamic process that only exists in the context of a relationship. In this way, it’s analogous to potential in electricity, mechanics, or gravity–the tension created between two opposing charges, forces, or masses.

And because of this view, Janeway holds the weak accountable for their part in relationships with the power. “[W]hen the weak habitually turn their backs on power because they accept the stereotypes that undervalue them, they permit their rulers to define proper processes of governing according to the experience of the rulers alone, so that it comes to seem that only one ‘right way’ to handle power exists.”

Even in the extreme conditions of a totalitarian state. As natural “as fear must be when the weak face unbridled oppression from the state, this fear is intended. It has a political purpose–to interfere with the normal functioning of the human beings who make up the mass of the governed”–to “separate them, and sick each one in isolation and paralysis.” She cites as evidence Charlotte Beradt’s remarkable survey of the dreams recounted by ordinary Germans living under the Nazi regime, The Third Reich of Dreams: “What she found was a kind of mental lockjaw. Anxiety dreams were everywhere. In them the dreamer was invited again and again to take some action in the face of danger and could not manage to do so; did not dare to move a finger.”

Elizabeth Janeway, 1980
In response, Janeway rallies the weak to hold onto what she calls “the first and last power of the weak”: skepticism, mistrust, and dissent. “If, in the face of repression, the governed can still hold to mistrust, they will not, of course be safe; but they will preserve the inner citadel of the self and with it the capacity of judging the exterior world in terms of their own interests.” Dissent, she writes, “is the intellectual steel which strengthens the self in the face of the tyrant’s weapon of induced panic.”

This suspicion should even extend to whatever bright alternate futures might be held up to excite the action and loyalty of the weak. “I have never, myself, read a Utopia that seemed to approach even distantly the size and the vitality of the human world. The past was full of surprises; the present is astonishing (as well as frightening): who knows what the future may be?”

In fact, though Janeway holds those who consider themselves weak, oppressed, or alienated accountable for taking charge of their own lives, she would reserve some skepticism for any political construct that might be devised. In a line that ought to be engraved and put up on the wall above any thinking person’s desk, she cautions that “There is always more more reality around than we allow for; and there are always more ways to structure it than we use.”

If you’re one of those who’ve felt depressed, disenchanted, or disgusted since November 8, I highly recommend getting a copy of Powers of the Weak and let her reinvigorate your power to dissent: “The basic trust of reality that we learned in our first creative conquest of the world is our defense against the magic image of a new system presented by the tyrants.”


Powers of the Weak, by Elizabeth Janeway
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980

Leave a Comment

*