A Question of Power
Next time you hear people talking about the social change that must be brought about, or some new reform agenda they are developing, ask them this: will it lead to a redistribution of power so that the gap between the powerful and the powerless is significantly reduced?
Anyone who claims that people should just be left alone as they are to interact with others sensibly and responsibly, and all would be for the best of all possible worlds, is either remarkably naïve or deviously misleading. If history has one consistent message for us, it is that genuine cooperation and mutual respect only flourish if none is so powerful as to be able to dominate others, and no one is so weak as to be at the arbitrary mercy of the rest.
So if we really want to release people’s potential to collaborate for the good of all, we have to target any concentration of power and press for a more balanced redistribution.
This is not an idealistic aspiration of armchair theorists or some form of envy-driven impulse amongst those on the margins of society. It is the guiding principle of every self-respecting state since time immemorial. Where one state is too powerful compared with others, the latter would have a choice – take collective action to bind the powerful into an agreement to treat them with respect, or risk being picked off by it one by one.
Britain was a past master with strategic alliances across Europe to keep Spain in check in the 16th/17th centuries, oppose France in the 18th/19th centuries, but left it too late in the face of the rise of Germany in late 19th/early 20th century. And if the balance of power is a critical objective in maintaining constructive relations between nations, it is equally so in securing positive relations between different groups within nations.
The lesson, as I draw out in my new book, Against Power Inequalities, is a simple one. For centuries it is where people have effectively joined forces in their struggle for a more inclusive, balanced power structure that the human condition has truly been improved for the benefit of all. On the other hand, once anyone – a nation, a political leader, an institution, a business, a church – is allowed to accumulate vast power in relation to others, the interests of the latter would almost certainly be thoughtlessly disregarded – workers with insecure jobs, women stuck in discriminatory cultures, victims of military conflicts, people harmed by environmental degradation, the poor, immigrants, and other vulnerable minorities.
But isn’t it impossible to ever attain a greater balance of power? Those who are already more powerful would use their strength to resist change. And any attempt to invest someone with sufficient power to challenge them risks a new autocrat taking over. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to leave power relations well alone, and rely on the charity of the rich and the magnanimity of the strong to get a few more drops of amelioration trickle down? Of course not. The past is already replete with countless examples of the powerful riding roughshod over those who cannot stand up to them.
The truth is that we can redistribute power without letting power flow into a new form of authoritarian control – the key being democratic collective action. Through unions, cooperative workplaces, citizen-based reform movements, and accountable governments, power can be spread more evenly. And the extent to which that is going to be achieved is the measure we should use to judge any new plan for change and reform to be put before us.
Against Power Inequalities:
Henry Tam’s new book provides a short guide to the contest for power redistribution across the centuries, and draws out the underlying causes of disempowerment which are still with us today. It will be of interest to anyone concerned with bringing about a fairer society, keen to see the broader historical picture of how power inequalities have undermined reciprocity in human interactions, and learn more about how progressive advocates and civic activists have joined forces in reversing the concentration of power in those with wealth, arbitrary authority, or status conferred by outmoded customs.
“Henry Tam is a master storyteller. This is history retold as a panorama of struggle, hope and co-operation in the name of fairness and in the pursuit of an ever wider circle of respect and equality. The idea of community has deep roots in human behaviour and, as this book shows, in human history.”: Ed Mayo, Secretary General, Co-operatives UK.
Against Power Inequalities is available in book stores or as a free download.