The power to create: Who’s stopping us?


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The RSA is developing a concept of ‘the power to create’ as a kind of values statement or intellectual guide to the work we should be doing. At its core is a recognition that ideas can come from unexpected places. What we mean by power is not necessarily how we normally imagine it, as governments, corporations, militaries, wealth, but as some potent cocktail of freedom, will, and capacity, which together can stoke up actions of unexpected resourcefulness and resilience.

It seems clear that the power to create should operate on a number of levels, from the individual to the community to public institutions. I believe that’s a crucial point, that what the power to create really means depends less on the subject – whether singular or collective – and more on the context in which this subject is situated, the external factors that limit, shape or inspire it. Based on a typology articulated by Hannah Arendt, we can think of the realms in which the power to create operates as the private, the social, and the political. In each realm, the power to create has distinct purposes, and distinct blockers.

The political (or public) sphere is where equality reigns. “Equality before the law has become an inalienable principle of all modern constitutional government”, Arendt writes. We can all vote and run for office, and laws and public institutions must treat all citizens equally. On the other side of the spectrum is the realm of privacy, the space we share only with those closest to us, where we develop and nurture the identity of the ‘self’ we use to enter the social or political spheres. Then there’s the social sphere, “that curious, somewhat hybrid realm between the political and the private in which, since the beginning of the modern age, most men have spent the greater part of their lives.” The existence of ‘the social’ has been debated endlessly, but for Arendt it’s a crucial space of freedom and differentiation, and must be understood as distinct from the equality of the public sphere. While in the public sphere we are all equals, in the social sphere we group together and define ourselves along the lines of such things as profession, income, ethnic origin, national origin, gender, class, education, manners, etc.

These days, we rightly talk a lot about inequality. But my sense from Arendt’s Reflections on Little Rock essay is that the extent to which we discuss and bemoan inequality today would make her a bit queasy, particularly because we don’t often specify what we mean by it. For her, inequality per se is not a problem; in fact it’s an unavoidable consequence of freedom. “The question”, she writes, quite provocatively, “is not how to abolish discrimination, but how to keep it confined within the social sphere, where it is legitimate, and prevent its trespassing on the political and the personal sphere, where it is destructive”.

In the Arendtian framework, any claim that we need a ‘more equal society’ rings slightly protototalitarian. We need a system that fosters equality of opportunity and equality of political representation, but we cannot downplay the importance of culture and group distinction – that is, of freedom, and therefore of difference – in the social sphere. “For equality not only has its origin in the body politic; its validity is clearly restricted to the political realm,” Arendt writes. “Only there,” in the eyes of the state, “are we all equals.” In other words, freedom and equality tend to get in each other’s way if not kept confined to where they each matter most.

The problem is that as a practical matter, it can be difficult to discern where one sphere ends and the next begins.

But if, as Arendt argues, a government that quells social inequality is tyrannical, so too must be a government that does the opposite – one that reinforces and even exacerbates a kind of inequality that is only economic, only public, on the surface. Deeper down, economic inequality is deeply associated with social inequality, which is reinforced through public institutions – the one area where inequality cannot be tolerated. As just one case in point, take undergraduate admission to Britain’s elite universities: only 7 percent of British pupils attend independent schools, but they are given a shocking 43 percent of Oxford’s undergraduate places. The problem is that as a practical matter, it can be difficult to discern where one sphere ends and the next begins, and it’s not entirely clear where the cause this admissions disparity lies (school performance, class, bias, etc.). But both the public sphere of equality and the social sphere of freedom are damaged, the former because of the immense advantages of the Oxford degree to the attainment of public office, and the latter because of the clear social and material advantages given Oxford’s graduates – again, not because advantage itself is a problem, but because in this case the social inequality derives from the gatekeepers of a public institution, and these gatekeepers play a strong role in perpetuating social disadvantage.

Roberto Unger alluded to this growing collusion while speaking at the RSA recently. “Indeed, we need, each of us, not just a secure home, but security generally in a haven of vitally protected interests.” I interpret this statement with great alarm as a suggestion that the integrity of all three of Arendt’s spheres has become compromised. The inequalities rightfully arisen in the social sphere have become reinforced through a public sphere designed not just to allow social and cultural differentiation to flourish, but to allow social difference to escalate into differences in power and opportunity, and a widespread inability to transcend one’s context. A structure of governance and public institutions that reinforces such rampant inequality impinges both on social freedom and on political equality. And privacy, as Unger suggests, is not the protective cocoon it should be. When a person looks outside her four walls of privacy and sees a social sphere that is not free, but dominated by fixed pathways and protected social interests, how can she freely decide for herself how she wants to enter the world?

If sameness were our highest aspiration, the realm of privacy would be an austere place.

The suggestion here is that we should fear sameness as much as we fear inequality. Do we really want a central authority to become the official arbiter of difference?[1] Perhaps just as pernicious as the social injustices of fixed fates and vested interests would be the notion that social equality should trump social freedom. If that were the case, and sameness were our highest aspiration, the realm of privacy would be an austere place. Freedom in the social sphere should not be about amassing differentials of power, but about being able to define oneself through differentiation – and this requires the acceptance of difference. The power to create is as much a way for individuals to distinguish themselves as to proactively remediate inequality of opportunity.

All this begs the question of who has, or should have, the power to create; i.e. whether it works on both individual and collective levels, and whether it applies in each of the three spheres. I would venture to say yes to both questions. Even if the power to create ultimately boils down to individual freedom, most of our decisions are shaped and bound by social contexts, which means that the power to create is well served both by encouraging individual freedom and responsibility as well as by enhancing individuals’ ability to act through effective institutions.




Power to Create: Potential Blockers



- Privacy

- Personal distinction

- Isolation and loneliness

- Mental health disorders



- Free association

- Group distinction

- Culture of conformity

- Overreliance on external provision

- Tribalism

- Resource limits


Public institutions

- Legal equality

- Political franchise

- Unequal representation

- Curtailment of social freedoms

- Vested interests

The RSA does and should continue to work in all three spheres, from learning, development and human behaviour in the realm of privacy; to design, enterprise and communities in the social sphere; and public policy in the political sphere. We must simply keep in sight the humanity at the core of systems and institutions – or to go even further, as Unger does, to “divinise humanity”.

“What we want is an equality in a shared bigness, in a largeness of life, incompatible with entrenched social and economic inequality, but having a much larger significance.

Please follow me on Twitter: @twtwism

[1] See, for example, the UKBA’s bone-chilling slogan: “Working together to protect the public”.

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