Introduction

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/introduction.htm)

How do those in power make decisions which affect us?  For example, America and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 despite public protests against the war.  Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic endorsed the decision to invade, yet the reasons for the invasion remain unclear:

• Was it self-defence, in response to a perceived military threat?

• Was it a moral mission, to rescue the Iraqi people from oppression?

• Was there a political objective, to bring stability to the Middle East through democratisation?

• Was there an economic concern for the stability of oil supplies?

• Or was it to enforce a UN resolution, to uphold international law?

Politicians said all of these things at different times,[1] in an attempt to sell the policy to a sceptical audience.  The effect was confusing and their arguments warrant re-examination.  Previous experiences, and the perspectives of some of the stakeholders, were ignored.

The decision to invade Iraq was an example of a more general problem: politicians often have to make decisions which have a great impact on us, yet it can be hard to understand or comment on whether they are acting in our best interests.  Good governance can protect us – as in the example of Clean Air Acts in America, Britain and elsewhere – but bad decisions can affect us adversely, without our consent and often without political accountability.

It is reasonable to comply with power that is being applied for one’s own benefit, or power which benefits other people without greatly harming oneself.  A case can also be made for complying with power that is exercised on behalf of other groups in society, even if it conflicts with one’s narrow interests, on the basis that what is good for society is indirectly good for oneself.  Power that seems to be used only for the benefit of those who wield it, though, lacks legitimacy.

This book offers a way of understanding and assessing the use of power, examining who benefits and who is disadvantaged.  It identifies patterns in the ways in which people exert power over each other, enabling us to analyse current events by examining recent history and published opinions.  These patterns are placed within a hierarchical system of classification, to aid the reader to find what types of power are being deployed in any given situation.

Some power relationships require negotiation between recognised viewpoints and others have outcomes which can be predicted in the light of past experience and informed views.  If we recognise what types of power are used, and what outcomes can be expected, we can more easily assess the performance of those who have power over us.  We can then try to influence them.

These patterns of power together constitute a broad survey of governance, which is defined here as the structures through which power is exercised.  Governance challenges arise with increasing frequency because there are some ongoing and far-reaching global transformations which are placing strains upon existing structures of power:

• The globalisation of finance and manufacturing has changed the power relationships between people, corporations and politicians – reducing the economic significance of national borders and increasing the need for supranational governance.

• Some rapidly developing economies, most notably China, are changing the global balance of power; Western democracies will have to adapt, both economically and politically.

• Environmental changes affect all countries.

• The Internet enables people to know what is going on around the world, to communicate more quickly, to openly express criticism of those who wield power, and to influence each other.

This increased exposure to global pressures is changing the role of national governments and is also accelerating the pace of social change within countries – exacerbating existing tensions and cultural differences which resurface as problems from time to time.  As governance has to evolve, it should be able to avoid repeating past mistakes if it avoids the patterns of power that work against the public interest.

Groups of people who live in the same area – ‘societies’ in the terminology of this book – have to decide for themselves what kind of governance is appropriate at a particular point in time; there is no universal set of principles or single ‘right answer’ which would suit them all.  Although there are common elements in the problems faced by every society, each is unique in some aspects and each will have to make different adjustments.  Solutions will have to be custom-built and adjusted when necessary.  It is, though, possible to use a common analysis approach, such as the one described in this book, to clarify public discussion as people decide how to update and improve their governance.

This is a search for a methodology, not a proposed solution.

This book doesn’t attempt to define a best form of governance, but nor does it take up the relativist position that ‘anything goes’.  It accepts that people may have different beliefs and tastes, which are entirely their own affair, but it argues that we need to be able to rely upon the behaviour of others – especially when those others are in positions of power.  The ceding of power to others, in exchange for the benefits of collective governance, is a bargain which can only be justified if it is acceptable to those who are subject to it – and if it is better than the available alternatives.

It is suggested here that there are four overlapping measures by which governance can be assessed:

Acceptability
Acceptability (to the population) is a broad measure of governance.  People know what is, or is not, acceptable to them as individuals, and whether a proposed change might increase or reduce acceptability.  People have different preferences, but governance can aim to increase satisfaction in aggregate.

Negotiability
Negotiability enables people to influence governance, so that it can be changed to make it more acceptable.

Inclusiveness
Governance can also be measured by the extent to which power is exercised for the benefit of everyone in a society, recognising the diversity of people’s views and cultural backgrounds; it ought not to be totally unacceptable to anyone.  Everyone has to make some compromises.

Prudence
Policies should take account of the likely trends for the next several years.  It is imprudent, and damaging to the population, to maximise short-term acceptability whilst letting foreseeable problems grow unchecked.

It is reasonable to seek these characteristics in the governance of any society; they are ways of measuring its quality, not prescriptions for how it should be conducted.  They are not tied to any specific political philosophy or ideology – they provide a pragmatic assessment of whether governance is likely to succeed in benefiting a population.

This book identifies five types of power: four of which are exercised in structured dimensions of governance – Economic, Moral, Legal and Political – and the fifth is the use of Self-Protection, where trials of strength result in a balance of power in the absence of credible governance (or as a supplement to it).  These ways of exercising power can take place at any scale, from the family group to the whole planet, in what is termed a hierarchy of ‘subsidiarity’.

This approach – through the consistent recognition of the ways in which power-patterns recur – facilitates a complete analysis: separating different types of power and enabling the perspectives of all the stakeholders to be considered.  Contentious issues are placed in their context, so that people can see the pressures behind opposing arguments and make up their own minds.

The book provides links to its source material, much of which is accessible on the Internet, so that readers can easily do further research into subjects which are of interest to them.  A conventional book is limited to the scope between its covers; this book, with its hyperlinks to the Internet, offers a structured portal to almost endless information.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014

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[1] On 31 August 2006 The Economist published an article entitled Five years on, in which it commented on the changes of political message in justifying the invasion of Iraq:
“Mr Bush and Mr Blair refused after the war to be embarrassed by the absence of the weapons that had so alarmed them beforehand.  They stressed instead all the other reasons why it had been a good idea to overthrow Mr Hussein.
…But portraying the whole enterprise as if it had from the start been all about an experiment in democracy just makes Muslims crosser.  By what right do you invade someone else’s country in order to impose a pattern of government?”
This article was available in February 2018 at http://www.economist.com/node/7854798.