Friday, 1 March 2013

The Power Hypothesis

For any social, economic, or political arrangement, a key question to ask is whether its distribution of power is so uneven as to allow some to exploit others without the latter being able to resist. If the answer is yes, then the arrangement is oppressive and inherently deficient, and should be reformed to reduce the prevailing level of power inequality.

So long as no one has so much power that they can bribe or threaten others who would otherwise be unwilling to act as instructed, then people will over time relate to each other in broadly reciprocal terms. All will know that either they are helpful and respectful towards others, or they would have to face others who would decline to be helpful and respectful to them. With no one side being able to take any unfair advantage over others, everyone has to find ways to interact on mutually beneficial terms. Any attempt to take from others without offering to give anything in return would be easy to detect, frowned upon, and duly dealt with.

Conversely, the further society departs from an even distribution of power, the Power Hypothesis predicts increasing prevalence of exploitation, as growing tension takes the place of reciprocal cooperation. A prince, a lord, a king, who has enough power that others fear that any opposition would be futile, would be able to ride roughshod over them. The same applies to heads of a household, a village, or an empire.

It also applies to international relations, where for centuries nations have sought to secure peace by means of a ‘Balance of Power’. And not surprisingly, when Spain, France, England, Germany at different times surged ahead of others in their socio-economic capability, they launched aggressive military operations against them.

Similarly, across contemporary society, oppressive behaviour surfaces where those in charge of organisations are not accountable to those they manage. Without a structure of employee rights to counter-balance managerial edicts, staff can be badly treated, and routinely see their share of the firm’s financial success disappearing into the inflated salaries and bonuses of their bosses.

Even worse treatment is meted out in institutions whenever there is a lack of democratic scrutiny to ensure those in charge do not abuse their authority in dealing with those placed under their jurisdiction: e.g., in care homes for the elderly, mental institutions, juvenile facilities, or prisons.

The only effective antidote in all such cases is for the power of all to be shared through a democratic system of governance. As a worker cooperative or a democratic state, such a body would treat each member as an equal, give each the support and protection they need, and expect from each an equal commitment to defend the common good.

Instead of arguing in broad generalities about ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’, ‘hierarchical traditions’ or ‘anarchic modernity’, we can apply the Power Hypothesis to the specific features of any form of human association and discover if they need to be reformed, and how far, to achieve greater power equilibrium. It has stood the test of time in differentiating harmful instability from sustainable cooperation. The more we use it as a guide to social and organisational development, the better off we would all be.

[Henry Tam’s book, Against Power Inequalities, a historical account of the problem of power inequality is available in e-book or paperback.]