The Patterns of Power concept is described in this introduction, together with a summary of the book’s aims, its approach to the subject, and its basis of assessment of how power is used.
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). It examines the power exerted by individuals, organisations and institutions – offering a way of understanding and assessing its uses, examining who benefits and who is disadvantaged. And 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 are given authority, tacitly or explicitly, by 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 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. And the survey is critical in that it analyses power according to whether it benefits those who are subject to it.
The analysis highlights the fact that some power relationships require negotiation between recognised viewpoints, so they will always be contested, whereas 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. Complex issues can be examined from several perspectives by using this approach.
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 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 – must 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.
It is reasonable to comply with power that is being applied for one’s own benefit, or if it 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 of the common good’, which has been advocated by numerous philosophers from Aristotle onwards.
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 these characteristics in the governance of any society; they are ways of measuring its quality, not prescriptions for how it should be conducted. The Patterns of Power concept of acceptability 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 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 introduction is followed by a description of the structure of the remaining chapters of the book, but some readers might prefer to move directly to the next chapter:
Next Chapter: 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 https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/Introduction-c.htm
 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 https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/1851/Jaede.pdf.