This book offers a way of understanding and assessing the uses of power, examining who benefits and who is disadvantaged. It identifies five broad types of power, showing how we are affected by each:
Economic power is exerted through the medium of money: wanting it and using it.
Moral influence works by persuasion, working on people’s consciences and their need to feel accepted by those around them.
The coercive power of the State is used to enforce the law.
Politicians draw support, tacitly or explicitly, from the population to make decisions on its behalf.
And some uses of power are ungoverned, relying on force rather than rules.
Further analysis within these categories reveals many different ‘patterns of power’. This is the origin of the Internet domain name patternsofpower.org and the titles of the books. These patterns are described and evaluated, 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 offer a way of analysing a situation, based on the idea of recognising which patterns of power apply to it. This allows complex issues to be examined from several perspectives.
Some power relationships require negotiation between recognised viewpoints and others have outcomes which can be predicted in the light of 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; it provides a basis for us to try to influence them.
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.
The 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. 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.
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. Acceptability (to the population) is used as a measure of governance:
It is assumed that everybody shares a desire for governance that optimises the opportunities for human flourishing and peaceful coexistence, and that governance should be judged by how well it serves those who are subject to it.
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 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 changes in governance are likely to benefit people.
The concept of acceptability is described more fully in the next chapter, which also describes how it relates to the work of various political philosophers. This book’s approach is more pragmatic than philosophical though, seeking to identify what benefits people in practice.
The book uses case studies to provide empirical evidence for its claims and it 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, but this book, with its hyperlinks to the Internet, offers a structured portal to almost endless information.
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 https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/Introduction.htm