Introduction to Patterns of Power

This introduction to Patterns of Power explains the project’s objectives, its concepts and assumptions, and its approach. 

When others wield power and influence over us, it is reasonable to ask whether they are doing so in our best interests.  Curiosity was the reason for writing the first in a series of books, trying to analyse how and why politicians in Britain and America made the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 despite being advised not to do so.  The focus in subsequent books has gradually changed, as the world has changed, and some strong underlying themes have become apparent.

The books use case studies to provide empirical evidence for their claims and they provide links to source material, much of which is accessible on the Internet, so that readers can easily research for themselves into subjects which are of interest to them.  A conventional book is limited to the scope between its covers, but these books, with their hyperlinks to the Internet, offer a structured portal to almost endless information.

The project’s objectives

Understanding how power works is the main aim.  The books seek to paint a broad picture of how different kinds of power relate to each other and to provide a route to obtaining more information on each.  The intention is to be comprehensive in scope, but to limit the depth of analysis to fit within the covers of a mid-sized book.

Classifying the power exerted by individuals, organisations, and institutions, is a way of identifying patterns which occur repeatedly.  This is the origin of the Internet domain name and the titles of the books.  These patterns are described and assessed, often using examples from recent events as illustrations.  In total, they constitute a broad survey of governance: which is defined here as the structures through which power is exercised.  The aim is to help readers to quickly identify what type of power is being applied in any given situation.  There are many hyperlinks to useful source material for readers of electronic versions of the books.

Assessment of the patterns of power involves examining who benefits and who is disadvantaged.  This forms a basis for describing policies that should be encouraged and identifying those which are best avoided.  It will be seen that some power relationships require negotiation between recognised viewpoints, so they will always be contested, whereas others have predictable outcomes.

Holding the powerful to account is a shared endeavour.  The contents of these books are used as source material for blog posts on the project’s website, but it is also hoped that other writers will find them useful.

Introduction to patterns of power concepts

The books recognise five broad types, or dimensions, of power:

Economic power is exerted through the medium of money: wanting it and using it.

Moral influence works by persuasion, acting on people’s consciences and their need to feel accepted.

Legal powers are used by the State to control the behaviour of the population.

Political authority draws support, tacitly or explicitly, from the population to make decisions on its behalf.

Ungoverned power relies on force rather than agreed rules.

Further analysis within these categories reveals many different ‘patterns of power’.  They are interlinked, as described in the next chapter.

There are other key concepts underpinning the analysis:

●  Disagreement is inevitable. People will always have different views.  The need for negotiation and compromise is unavoidable.

●  Continual change must be assumed. The rate of change of economic factors, and cultural change, has accelerated dramatically with faster communications and movements of population.

●  There is a tension between a desire for autonomy and the need to harness the benefits of cooperation. This affects the subsidiarity of power: whether decisions should be local, regional, national, or international.

Assessment criteria

A central argument of this book is that the exercise of power should aim to be acceptable to those it affects (whilst recognising that ‘acceptability’ is subjective).  The overriding criterion is whether the use of power benefits those who are subject to it.  This work doesn’t attempt to define a best form of governance, but nor does it take up the relativist position that ‘anything goes’.  It recognises 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.  Groups of people who live in the same area – ‘societies’ in the terminology of this book – have arrived at different governance frameworks with varying degrees of acceptability to the population.  There is no universal set of principles or single ‘right answer’ which would suit them all, but some patterns recur everywhere.

It is reasonable to comply with power that is being applied for one’s own benefit, or that benefits other people without greatly harming oneself.  A case can also be made for submitting to 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.  This second argument is based on the concept that ‘the common good’ should be actively fostered, as advocated by numerous philosophers from Aristotle onwards.[1]

The ceding of power to others, in exchange for the benefits of collective governance, is rational if the governance is acceptable – so acceptability to the population is used as a measure:

●  It is assumed that everybody shares a desire for governance that optimises the opportunities for human flourishing and peaceful coexistence.

●  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 should aim to increase satisfaction in aggregate.

It is reasonable to seek acceptability in the governance of any society.  It is a way of measuring its quality, not a prescription for how it should be achieved.  This concept is described more fully in the next chapter, which also describes how it relates to the work of some political philosophers.  This book’s approach is more pragmatic than philosophical though, seeking to identify what benefits people in practice.

The approach

The project’s website is at  It contains the current and previous book contents, further analysis on some complex topics, and a blog.

Recognising the broad scope of the Patterns of Power project, the pattern descriptions are stored in layers so that one can choose how much detail to engage with at any one time.  This is explained in the next section, on chapter structures, which also explains the hierarchical section numbering in the books.

Within each of the five chapters that describe the separate dimensions of power, the pattern descriptions are arranged in segments of increasing complexity – starting with an overview segment that characterises the nature of that kind of power.  The final segments of each of these five chapters list the most contentious issues in that dimension:

●  Contentious economic issues include ensuring that the economy works for everyone’s benefit. Taxation, public service delivery, and environmental challenges are addressed for example.

●  The most difficult moral issues are associated with trying to coexist peacefully in a pluralist society.

●  Some of the most intractable legal problems stem from the need for the law to respond to rapid social change.

●  The contentious political issues include some very high-profile topics, including government spend and taxation, inequality, the environment, and foreign policy. Aspects of political accountability are also considered.

●  The most significant aspect of ungoverned power is the use of military force (and this work discusses why it rarely solves problems).

Many complex topics can be analysed in more than one dimension of power.  Just looking at the above list offers two examples: taxation and environmental challenges.  Both clearly affect the economy, and they are also politically contentious issues.  The relevant sections are cross-referenced to each other, with live hyperlinks for readers of electronic versions of the book or those who are reading it online.

Major events are commented on in blog posts on the website.  These posts are often linked to book sections.  They are stored in categories, and they can be retrieved in that way from the website homepage.  They are also tagged with recognisable keywords.  From the current edition onwards, hyperlinks are made from both the books and the index to these categories and tags.  For example:

Ukraine is listed as a sub-category of Conflicts.  The earliest post on the subject was on 5 March 2014, drawing attention to the risks associated with antagonising Russia.  More recent posts on Ukraine refer to political stances taken by politicians in the West, as support for it has become a political issue.  The tag Russia retrieves additional posts on other conflicts and geopolitical issues in which that country is involved.

Any individual reader may disagree with the book’s evaluations of some of the patterns of power.  This is inevitable, because acceptability is ultimately a personal matter, but it is to be hoped that seeking better governance, and arguing for peaceful coexistence, are widely shared objectives.

This introduction to Patterns of Power is followed by a description of the structures of the remaining chapters of the book, but some readers might prefer to move directly to the next chapter – on assessment criteria.

Back to Contents List

Next Section: Chapter Structures

Next Chapter: Pattern Assessment Criteria

This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at

[1] A British Academy working paper, The Concept of the Common Good, lists philosophers who have analysed it through the ages.  it was available in February 2023 at