Who's got the power?


  • Behaviour change

The mountain marathon I am running in two weeks (thanks again to all the kind people who got me to my £2,000 target) illustrates the distinction between ‘power over’ which is zero sum and ‘power to’ which is not.

For many runners the goal is to come as close as possible to winning. As only one pairing can come first the power to win is power over others. But all my team of two hopes to do is in finish in one piece. In terms of this goal the ‘power to’ finish need not affect anyone else in the race.

‘Power over’ can be concentrated or diffuse, naked or hidden but its relational nature means there is a fixed quantity. ‘Power to’ is constructive in the sense that it is a power developed from the use of various resources in pursuit of an explicit goal. Politics is generally a ‘power over’ problem, policy making generally involves ‘power to’ problems. Perhaps our tendency mainly to think of power in the former terms is subliminally linked to the idea of energy in physics which – as I understand it – is also a fixed quantity.

‘Power over’ and ‘power to’ are necessary but not sufficient to each other. Those perceived to have the ‘power to’ are more likely to win ‘power over’. Those with ‘power over’ are able to impose their idea of ‘power to’ and the purpose to which such power is put.

When I describe the social aspiration gap – separating collective aspirations from the trajectory in which current attitudes and behaviours may be setting us – I am primarily interested in ‘power to’ questions. This is why I emphasise the degree to which most of us share aspirations such as care and dignity in old age, protecting the environment, fair chances for our children, strong common values in a free and tolerant society. But this may be seen as naïve. The core problem in each case can be seen to be direct or indirect power interests (for example, the rich over poor, neo-liberals over progressives) or, notwithstanding the balance of power, sheer irreconcilability, say between communitarians and liberals.

My response is pragmatic. It may be that the barrier to progress lies in the domain of ‘power over’. But if we start here we are in danger of falling into a kind of revolutionary fatalism; there is no point trying to solve problems until we achieve a fundamental shift in power relations. This is why many on the left – and some on the right - are much more interested in dissecting problems than debating solutions.

So if we start with a ‘power over’ discussion we will find it hard to move to a ‘power to’ discussion (this is something Tessy Britton and I have discussed in the context of community organisation). But if we start with a ‘power to’ conversation, which assumes that in relation to many issues most of us genuinely share the same aspirations, not only is it possible that we will in time expose some ‘power over’ problems, but we might make their exposure more credible given that we discover them through inquiry rather than setting out already assuming them to be at the core of everything.

In a way this equates to an argument I used to make to egalitarians. Rather than see the problem of society as inequality (perceived as a ‘power over’ issue) and assume equality brings a better society, how about starting out with the ‘power to’ question, ‘how can we build a better society?’, and then seek to examine the degree to which the distribution of economic power is a barrier to progress?

A reason why so many people seized on the evidence in Wilkinson and Pickett’s book ‘The Spirit Level’ was that it made it possible to construct a ‘power to‘ argument about solving social problems in terms which led directly to the need for action in the domain of ‘power over’.  (There, is an argument that equality is intrinsic to the good society but this tends to lead to rather abstract debates between the merits of ‘fair’ equality versus outcome equality.)

I will return to some of the ‘power to’ questions implied by the idea of the social aspiration gap in subsequent posts, but the question of ‘power over’ has been bugging me and this is my attempt  to put in a box for the time being.

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