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Inequality of Power


  • Education
  • Social brain
  • Social networks
  • Social justice

How much power do you have?

How much power do you have?

If you are struggling to answer that question, defining power and creating a suitable metric would be a good place to start. Neither task is easy, but Demos recently attempted both,  resulting in: The Power Gap: An Index of Everyday Inequality in Britain, written by Daniel Leighton.

According to Demos, what makes a person powerful is a combination of three factors: the ability to shape one's own life, to be resilient in the face of shocks and the arbitrary power of others, and the power to shape the social world. These three factors are measured in terms of eight power indicators: Education, occupational status, income, employment, freedom from crime, health, voter turnout, marginality of parliamentary seat.

The theoretical framing of power seems quite sophisticated, but the research, as far as I understand it, amounted to a large scale quantitative data survey, with several proxies used for the relevant measures. For instance, an individual's measure of 'personal power' is a mixture of their level of academic qualifcations as a proxy for their critical thinking and choice of occupation, their income is a proxy for control over personal decisions, and their seniority as a proxy for control in the workplace.

Demos are of course aware that such measures are approximations, and if your ambition is to map levels of something as intangible as 'personal control' over the whole country, it is hard to see how you could do much better. For several thousand individuals the data and the proxies will not adequately capture their power level, subjectively or objectively(whatever that means in this context) but in aggregate the data does seem meaningful and powerful. The map may not be the territory, but it's a pretty impressive map nonetheless.

I found it a fascinating report to read, not least becasue The Connected Communities Project is based on a less formalised understanding of the inequality of 'power', and driven by attempts to foster empowerment through building social capital in deprived communities. When he was recently speaking at the RSA, John Kamphner said he didn't like the word 'empowerment' because it sounded too 'NGOish', but it is not easy to find a suitable replacement. The question of giving individuals and communities more control over their lives and their environments is very much the heart of the connected communities project, and the Demos report, and I think 'empowerment' captures that idea quite well, NGOish or not. (Demos also use 'resilience' as a key component of power i.e. the ability to withstand shocks and arbitrary changes. Their proxies for resilience are health, crime and unemployment, while our main claim is that resilience is a function of the range and density of social networks).

Inequality comes in many guises, but the Demos report contends that the inequality that impacts on life quality most tangibly is the inequality of power. At first blush, inequality of power sounds like a tautology, because we are used to thinking of power in hierarchical or 'power over' terms, whereby power is a zero sum game, traded between boss and worker, state and citizen etc. But the power at stake in this report is principally the power to shape one's own life i.e "The power of the effective agent to make things happen.", as they put it in the report, or as Bertrand Russell put it even more succinctly, "The production of intended effects".

The report is heavily informed by Amartya Sen's work on Capabilities, who refers to the central importance of people having "The opportunity to lead lives they have reason to value".

I refer you to the report for more detailed considerations about the relative power of different areas in the uk, but what I didn't find there, and what I would like to have known, is how a map of the inequality of power differs from a map on the inequality of income; such a comparison would have been illuminating.

In terms of closing gap between the powerful and powerless, I think we need a deeper understanding of surplus powerlessness, an idea of Michael Lerner's that was highlighted in the report: "Surplus powerlessness refers to the fact that human beings contribute to their existing powerlessness to the extent that their emotional, intellectual and spiritual makeup prevents them from actualising possibilities that do exist." Lehrer is clear that such surplus powerlessness is a direct cause of real powerlessness i.e. that the inequality of power in socio-economic terms creates a vicious circle and becomes compounded by our psycho-social makeup. On this analysis, the inequality of power literally goes from bad to worse.

On a more optimistic note, at the RSA we believe that becoming empowered is about recognising that our autonomy increases as we recognise our interdependence. While we encourage policy makers to address the inequality of power at whatever levels policy can have impact (education, employment, health, law and order etc) we can begin to address surplus powerlessness by a deeper appreciation of our connectivity, and by accessing sources of power through available networks.  Hannah Arendt puts the point more powerfully:

"Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is 'in power', we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain group of people to act in their name."

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