Zan Boag: Have you arrived at your own definition of power?

Keith Dowding: No, I don’t really have one, actually, and I’m not sure that that’s the right way to go about science. I mean, it seems to me that scientists don’t define energy and then go and search for it. What they do is examine certain phenomena and then they look at their characteristics and they say that’s what energy is. They define it after analysis, not before.

I think it’s fine to say look, this is my definition of power and this is how I’m going to look at power for this particular analysis – I’m not making the claim that it’s the notion of power which should be defined in all places and all times.

I do think that power is a dispositional thing, something that you can have without using, without operating all the time. That leads me to think that power is a capacity, so if you want to look at the power of something, you need to look at its capacities or its resources. Some people think that power is power to, the ability to do things. Some people think social power or power should always be seen as power over, the ability of some people to control others. I call the second one social power, and I think social power is a subset of the first one. That is, one way in which I can get certain things is to get other people to do them for me, and that might be some kind of power relationship. But the other sort of claim is the difference between those who see power as being a property of social structures and those who see it as being a property of agents. And I very much see it as a property of agents given the resources they have.

ZB: Can power and inequality be separated? Or are they inextricably intertwined?

KD: You can be unequal in all sorts of ways. If I see power in terms of resources, if people have unequal resources, then they’re going to have unequal power, they’re going to have unequal capacities. It might be the case that some people choose not to use some of their resources, so in that sense they might not be seen to be powerful people in society because they don’t exercise their resources; they don’t try to.

So, I’m concerned a little more about that. I see resources in four different types of ways. The first two are quite straightforward. One of them is information: I can have power over you because I know things that you don’t and I can choose to tell them to you or not. I can lie to you. I can fool you.
The second one is authority. So, you might do what I say because you recognise me as an authority, someone in command, so I’m an authority. Or you might see me as an expert, so you trust me. I’m an authority; that gives me powers.

Then there are conditional incentives to get people to do things, that can be threats or offers. I say if you do X, I’ll give you Y. Or if you don’t do X, I’m going to do Y to you. You can also create unconditional incentives for people to do different things. And this is one of the things that government does, of course, a lot. It regulates by bringing in certain laws, it gives people incentives to behave in one way or another. If you, say, tax salt on food, you might force manufacturers to put less salt in food, people might buy different foods, that kind of thing. You can change people’s behaviour by giving them incentives.

Those four resources are all in John Harsanyi’s game theoretical work. And I added another one, which is a bit controversial for some people, which is reputation – modern game theory recognises that sometimes people can seem to be far more powerful than their other material resources make it appear, and that’s because they have a reputation.

And you can see by these reputations people can gain power; even if you’re weak you can get a reputation. If you think of a bully at school and he starts bullying someone, punching someone, but they don’t ever give way, they just stay stubborn. And the bully might stop after a while because it’s no fun any more, or they get blood on their clothes or something. This person, just through their stubbornness, can actually stop the bully. And that’s a sort of power resource.

So, I do make this distinction between those that by my analysis have power, but don’t necessarily exercise it. One way that certain groups or people might look at power differently to me is they might say so-and-so’s powerful because they get all these things. And I say, well, actually they’re not, they’ve got very few resources, they’re just, in my terms, lucky.

ZB: I would like to talk a little bit about your ideas around power and luck – as in getting what you want without trying to get it. You argue that some groups or some people are systematically lucky in that they have advantages because of the way society is structured, while others are unlucky when it comes to power. Can you explain this idea of the link between luck and power?

KD: It came from two directions. One was something called the power indices, which is the notion of measuring power in decision theory and looking at the voting power of people. And it can be the case that some groups always seem to win in voting games. But that doesn’t mean each individual voter is individually powerful – everyone’s only got one vote – but it’s just they’re always in the majority. There’s a group of people whose preferences are all the same. You might think of that group being powerful as a group, but each individual’s got no more voting power than those who are always losing. If you’re a member of the majority group, in some sense you’re lucky – you’re lucky to share preferences with other people.

My second problem was looking at the power of the farmers in the UK post-Second World War. A tiny proportion of voters, like 2 per cent, they’re not particularly in marginal constituencies, but both Conservative and Labour governments over the years have often done what farmers want. They seem to be very well disposed towards them.

The question was: Why was that? And one answer that was given in the literature was that farming was strategically very important in the post-war period, really, certainly in ‘73 when it became more complicated with the European Union and so on. But it was strategically important, so the interests of the farmers were also the interests of the country, if you like, of the government. So, they were kind of lucky in that sense. Farmers’ interests were shared with the government. That was how I came to the notion of being systematically lucky.

Steven Lukes doesn’t recognise this link between luck and power. He writes about how, and I quote here, “A situation where one’s interests systematically correspond with outcomes, even if their interests shared with others cannot plausibly be attributed solely to chance. It is the continuing reproduction of unequal power that allows such correspondence to continue.” Does the reproduction of unequal power play a part? Is it just luck? Or are both factors in who has power and who doesn’t?

First, I want to challenge this notion of putting together luck and chance. I’m not saying that chance has nothing to do with luck, but it’s not only chance. I mean, if a person wins $1,000 in a 10 million to 1 chance, do we think they’re more or less lucky than someone that wins $1 million in a 1,000 to 1 chance? I think most people would think the person that won the more money was luckier even though the probability of winning was much higher. So, I don’t think luck is simply chance. It’s also how well you do beyond what people expect, if you like, so beyond the probability.

It’s not straightforward. Some people can be luckier than others because they get much bigger rewards even if they’re more likely to occur than others. And, of course, I talk about systematic luck. My notion of systematic luck is simply that people, because of the structure of resources, because of the structure of preferences, they are privileged in that they tend to get things which, even if they have the resources, they don’t have to use them.

Finance capitalists do not have to be on the phone talking to people, getting what they want. Most of the time they don’t need to. Society runs how they want it to without them having to intervene. They can intervene, but they tend not to. So, I would say this feeds its own privilege, this reproduction of privilege comes about because of the way that the system works. And they’re not using their power resources all of the time in order to have that.

I agree with Lukes, absolutely, that power does reproduce itself. And I agree entirely that privilege reproduces itself. But I think it’s quite important to make the distinction between people acting to reproduce things and reproduction happening, if you like, an invisible hand behind everyone’s back, right, because if we want to do something about it, if we want to intervene to stop it, that requires different sorts of interventions.

ZB: We have a media structure that is now 24/7, so people’s opinions are being influenced much more than ever before. To what degree does the media have power over what we think?

KD: The media’s obviously very powerful – through them we get most of our information about the world. Most people don’t realise, actually, that most of the things we believe we get through testimony. We don’t have any direct knowledge about most of the things that we know. We get it because we hear other people tell us this. There is a tendency for people to believe what they hear, and if they hear it over and over they tend to believe it. Even if you’re a sceptic like me, the media becomes really important. If we go back 60, 70 years, it tended to be much less monopolistic than it became 15, 20 years ago.

We’ve got far greater monopoly of information through the mass media. That’s what’s bad – what we want in our media is to hear lots of different voices.

My view, which is sort of a J. S. Mill view, is that I think that when people talk about free speech, my right to say something, well, I don’t think free speech is about the right for me to say something – it’s about the right for people to hear things. And what you want with free speech is to hear lots of different voices, hear lots of different opinions. And you don’t get that if you have a monopoly press, a monopoly TV.

And what’s happened with the Internet is lots of different voices now, and maybe 15 years ago people were saying this is great, this is going to democratise information flows, it’s going to disperse power. And you can see some of that in terms of protest movements, where people will use social media to be able to enhance collective action. We could see it in the Arab Spring and things like that how people were able to use social media, to make sure they could get critical mass of demonstrations and to do things.

But, of course, what happens is once the tool is shown to be powerful then other people move in – people who have got all sorts of powers, they move in and they start taking it over. And now we can see individual concerns really taking back control, I think, from social media – we can see how governments are using it, how foreign governments are using it. And, of course, one of the things that the Internet allows, that social media allows, is to target information. What was involved in politics 20 years ago, 30 years ago, we had a very crude thing: we used to knock on people’s doors and ask their views and then we would target different letters from a political party to different people; not lying ones, but if we knew that someone was interested in the environment, they’d get a letter about the environment. If someone was interested in traffic problems, they’d get a letter about what are we going to do about traffic problems. So, we were targeting. Nowadays everyone tells everyone what their views are. They don’t realise that information is being harvested. This is a very dangerous thing and it’s a massive power resource for those who want to use it, and that’s a big issue.

ZB: Is it a natural urge for humans to have power over others? And is it that those people who have been systematically lucky will do whatever it takes to hold on to that power?

KD: My honest answer is that I don’t know. However, it seems to me that it is the case if we look at the history of societies that some societies are more egalitarian than others. Some societies have more hierarchies than others, but essentially all societies tend to have certain kinds of leaders, and this makes sense... Collectively acting can be a problem which can be solved if someone coordinates the activities of others. And that person becomes a leader. And that person doesn’t have to thereby start getting all the trappings and great wealth or whatever – you might have an egalitarian society, but you have someone who acts maybe for short periods of time to coordinate the activities of the people. You might see this in the most egalitarian societies that we know of – the hunter-gatherer ones where we know pretty well that they’re highly egalitarian, but you still have leaders and you still have gender divisions and so on in these societies.

But I do think it is the case that people tend to gather resources to themselves and they tend to use them – if you have resources in one field, you tend to also gather resources in another field. So, one way of thinking of a nice kind of egalitarian society, is that everyone isn’t the same: some people have more money than others, some people have more power than others, some people have greater achievement than others. But you have different resources, and some people have more of each of these resources, but overall everyone has quite a lot. But that tends not to happen. People who gather money tend to also gather political influence, followers, other things, so it’s the case that resources tend to coagulate and go together to make some people far more powerful than others.

I also see in history, though, that when societies become highly inegalitarian they also tend to become more revolutionary and there’s more discontent. I do think there comes a point where if society gets highly inegalitarian, you do get revolt. And I think that’s what’s happening today. People talk about the rise of populism, both on the left and the right, but I think this might be a result because people are actually getting very upset about the massive inequality that we have. It’s not just the inequality that we had 30 years ago, it’s massive inequality now, and I think people are acting against that.

ZB: Is there a way of freeing ourselves of the power others have over us?

KD: When I started studying power using economic methods I realised economists don’t talk about power except for monopoly power; that’s the one power they talk about. So, we know that if companies can control as much as 40 per cent of the market then they actually have a lot of power – it’s no longer a free market. All these things about how wonderful capitalism is in a market, that goes. So, we should break up organisations and certainly break up media organisations if they control more than, I would say, a small percentage of the market. We should break up Google – they control too much.

On a different level, I could say well, again, one way of freeing yourself from the power of others is to not let people do things – to be stubborn. At the end of Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People, Dr Stockmann says he has made a great discovery “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone”. What he means is that he will not be swayed by other’s views. In that way he is not controlled by anyone else. You can say, OK, I’m not going to let people dominate me, dominate my thoughts. And that’s something we can all do, but it’s too much to say we free society by making everyone stubborn in that kind of way, but I think on a personal level you can overcome the power other people might have over you just by being stubborn or ignoring them or getting on with your own life. But in a more serious, social sense we can try to set up a constitutional situation where we make society more egalitarian, and that way we equalise power to a great extent.

ZB: Following on from your idea about breaking up companies – it reminds me of Lord Acton’s famous words, “Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What do you think of this? Does power corrupt?

KD: Power is an interesting concept because most of the concepts we use in political philosophy have a particular normative force. So, generally speaking, people think equality’s a good thing. They might disagree over what we should equalise, but they think equality’s a good thing. They think freedom’s a good thing. They think human welfare’s a good thing. But power, well, is it a good thing or a bad thing? Or, if you’ve got power to do things, it’s good isn’t it, having power? But people having power over you is a bad thing.

So, power is kind of neutral, but power to do good is also the power to do evil. I think one of the reasons why power might corrupt, particularly political power, is that people think they can do good things. Most people think they are good or right, and maybe powerful people start off doing good things, but I’ve often noticed how people mistake personal preference for goodness. I like flowers, I’m a gardener, so I talk about flowers, but I don’t like tulips. I can tell you why I don’t like tulips. They open too quickly – so, I’ll say to someone, I like flowers, but I don’t like tulips. And they’ll say “Oh, but tulips are lovely!” And I’ll say, well, I didn’t say they weren’t lovely. I said I don’t like tulips.

And well, someone will say what did you think of the film? And I’ll say I didn’t think much of it. And they say but this is a great film. You are wrong. And I’ll say well, hang on a minute. I said I didn’t like the film. I didn’t say that you didn’t like it. Or I didn’t say it wasn’t a good film. I just said I didn’t like it. And I think this sort of shifting of your personal preference into what’s right and wrong is one way in which power corrupts, because people then start bringing their preferences, their tastes, into how they govern and how they rule – rather than just thinking about what people want. So, that is one way in which power corrupts.

From the Power edition of New Philosopher magazine.