Power and the Zero-Sum Game


“The great strength of the totalitarian state is that it forces those who fear it to imitate it.” – Adolf Hitler

In order to create situations of scarcity, capitalism requires the unequal distribution of resources; such scarcity, in turn, serves to increase the value of the resources already under the control or ownership of certain individuals or groups. A situation, either real or perceived, whereby such resources are understood to be finite, is also necessary in order to drive this dynamic; this has the effect of increasing the degree of inequality between the haves and the have-nots, resulting in an increase in the associated power imbalance.

Often the finitude of earthly resources is bemoaned in that such limitations are widely expected to lead to the ultimate downfall of capitalism as a system; however, it is this very feature of capitalism that is key to its continual and widespread adoption as an unfettered economic model, serving the interests of those already in possession or control of the lion’s share of available scarce resources, while presenting an egalitarian veneer. Careful control is maintained over the quantities of scarce resources that are made available to the vast majority of citizens; such measures seek to ensure that there remains adequate incentive for modest resource gains to be achieved, while also ensuring that any meaningful transfer of power is avoided.

war strategy

The zero-sum game aspect of that which drives much of the macro economy and, therefore, the decisions taken and the attitudes held at the micro level, is imbued with an implicit and general understanding that for every gain, there must be an equivalent loss, for every plus, an equivalent minus; such a principal underlies the worlds of commerce and recruitment, the property market, and the sport and entertainment industries. Since elements of competition feature as either distinct or as less obvious elements of much that surrounds the average person in their day to day life, it is little wonder that, for certain individuals with a particular predisposition and developmental history, the need to compete serves to inform the manner in which almost every interpersonal interaction takes place (Adler, 1930)1, even where no zero-sum game type of scarce resource situation is at hand. In such situations resources might be available that are not in fact scarce and, as such, no need exists for the parties in question to compete.

Examples include situations within which there is a competitive dynamic at work among a group of women, even where no obvious suitor is at hand to produce a sense of scarcity out of the resource of perceived beauty; or among a group of men attempting to ‘out-Alpha’ one another, creating scarcity out of the resource of respect, even where every opportunity exists for this resource to be made available both plentifully and mutually. Ultimately, such behaviours are driven by a pervasive and overwhelming sense of lack – for the individual stuck in the zero-sum game paradigm it is assumed that, where a deficit is brought into being elsewhere, an automatic and equivalent surplus will automatically accrue to them.

Power and ‘The Other’

For such an individual, and also at the macro level of international power dynamics, a question to consider at this juncture is, in situations where the quantities of resources held or controlled by an individual or group remain unchanged, does interpersonal power continue to exist in the absence of another party? That is, does power exist only in relative terms, i.e. ‘I have power (only) because you do not’?

Thus, what is it that drives the desire to attain and control scarce resources over and above those required to ensure the well-being of the individual and their immediate social group (family)? Is it the action being sought from another party that serves as motivation, or is it the enforcement of that action that underlies the desire for interpersonal power? Does the drive for such attainment and do the behaviours that accompany it alter in the absence of another party?

Another question to consider is: In order to feel truly powerful does the individual who seeks to have another party ‘do what they would have them do’ require that such an individual or group fulfil a particular role, that is the role of ‘non-powerful’? There is much to merit such an assertion and to support the idea that one of the first moves within an interpersonal power contest will be the enforcement of a subservient role by one party upon another.


Typically, acquiescence to such a demand will be demonstrated by requisite gestures, i.e. body language and speech patterns universally recognised as being subservient in nature. However, where resistance to the fulfilment of such an imposed role takes place, conflict and power contests will result; more overt measures will then be required in order to enforce the subservient role upon the resistant individual or group.

Eric Berne outlines the presenting dynamics within a variety of interpersonal ‘games’ in his seminal treatise on transactional analysis, ‘The Games People Play’2. Power contests are a feature of all of these games, along with the tensions brought about by the attempted enforcement of a required role by one participant upon another. More often than not such enforcements tend to be successful; resistance to the fulfilment of a particular role imposed by another party will typically result in the resistant party becoming the target of aggression and/or of social isolation. Such outcomes are highly undesirable and, for this reason, conformity to the will of the more powerful party usually occurs.

  1. Adler, A. (1930), The Science of Living, Allen and Unwin (London)
  2. Berne, E. (1964), The Games People Play, Grove Press

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