Human Relationships: Power and Transaction

I’ve recently found myself embroiled in a rather lengthy discussion on feminism. The discussion focused on feminism in general, defining it, and defining terms like “the patriarchy”. I argued mostly for the sake of arguing, often taking stances I don’t genuinely believe just to stir the pot (but I am not a troll; I never stepped across that boundary), but it got me thinking. One person suggested that my definition of subjectivity, rights based on selfish transactions, and non-transcendent ethics “devolved” to power.

And he was right, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a devolution. So I got to thinking how definitions of subjectivity are currently both the most influential and highly contested factors influencing contemporary literary criticism. Which also got me thinking about power, transactions, and human interaction.

So here we go, with my completely under-developed theory concerning human relationships as transactions in which power is the prime currency (bear in mind that I don’t pretend to be the first to have covered this ground; I’m certain others have done so, but these are ideas I have arrived at recently, more or less independently):

All human relationships are transactional by nature, and the currency for those transactions is power. Before we get on to the various types of relationships human beings experience and how those are based on power, let’s discuss how relationships are transactional by nature.

  1. Going back to John Stuart Mill if we have to (and certainly to Adam Smith and certain principles of how market economies organize themselves), we find that human beings are motivated primarily, and I would say almost exclusively, by self-interest. We may want love, money, or even a sense of satisfaction from doing good (which is desirable, and so doing good works can even be acting in self-interest, whether it’s apparent or not), but virtually everything we do is motivated by a kind of self interest.
  2. Relationships are a two way street. Nobody will be involved in a relationship (unless it is against their will, which relates to the other part of my idea) without getting something from it. That something could be any of the things we mentioned above, as well as a pretty much infinite variety of other things, tangible and intangible.

Your relationship with your spouse is transactional. You give love, physical affection, securiity, and so forth, in exchange for love, physical affection, security, etc. Your relationship with your parents works in the same way with a different set of exchanges. You work for your boss in exchange for money and possibly approval. If you’re in school you get knowledge from your teachers in exchange for a certain amount of respect, obedience, and of course you have to demonstrate what you have learned. The list goes on.

But all of these currencies are actually just tangible or intangible representations of power. Let’s look at some examples from the above list.

  1. Love: love involves trusting someone enough to give them a degree of emotional (and in some cases physical) power over you
  2. Trust: trust itself is a form of power, since trusting someone puts them in a position to hurt you
  3. Money: this one is obvious; in Western society it is virtually impossible to live in any degree of comfort without money; anyone who provides you with a means to live (ie. with money) has power over you, as will be obvious to anyone who has ever held a job
  4. Physical Affection: this literally puts your body in a position where it can be harmed, and so goes back to trust

The list I’m sure could be longer, but I haven’t worked all the way through this idea yet, so I’m not going to expand on it any further at this time. What this seems to mean to me, then, is that human relationships are all transactional, based on the self-interest of the parties coinciding. The goods (or services) involved in those transactions all ultimately come down to issues of power, whether it’s granting someone power over you, taking power over someone else, or putting yourself or someone else in a position to have power, should they choose to take it.

I’m not sure yet how all of this relates to literature, but we’ll see.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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