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Where does Power come from?

Power comes from various parts of the Human Activity System;

  • Knowledge
  • The Individual
  • The Group
  • Resources
  • Ideas and beliefs 


We are all familiar with the aphorism “knowledge is power”.

One of the things I noted in the earlier discussion was the way in which patent law is being pushed and extended to the point where it moves away from being a mechanism to ensure that the inventor has a fair chance to recoup something for their effort, to a tool for aggressive competition; in the terms of Porter's model of competition (Porter) patents are one way of creating barriers to entry for would be competitors. 

As we all know however beliefs often trump knowledge and being right is guarantee of getting something done. As a source of power knowledge alone is not much use.

The Individual

This goes straight to our biological makeup (psychology and neuroscience); some people are (naturally) dominant or have (natural) charm and ways of influencing others. We are all susceptible to charisma and we all know when someone has it. The individual will deploy some aspects of their personality as well as making a judgement about what tactics to employ – in this way a person who is manipulative may be able to use deception or blackmail whilst a person who has charisma may be able to use persuasion. 

One feature of our culture is that it enables people who are not physically strong to become powerful. This is a relatively recent development, Kings were usually expected to display fighting prowess, as as recently as 27thJune 1743 George II led British troops at the battle of Dettingen, both Napoleon III and The Kaiser accompanied their armies at the Battle of Sedan on 2 September 1870.

The Group 

This goes straight to our primate inheritance – we are social animals and live in groups; some form of hierarchy is inevitable.  As noted in Vision; “When humans invented socioeconomic status, they invented a way to subordinate like nothing that hierarchical primates had ever seen before” (Sapolsky p673)

The individual’s power is enhanced if the wielder has legitimacy and undermined if they do not. Social rank, place in a hierarchy, are all linked to the notion of legitimacy which gives the right to use power. In hierarchical organisations when persuasion fails “just do it” is a call to use position power. In the military the chain of command is based entirely on position power, orders have to be followed but it needs constant and rigorous training   (which the armed forces have a long tradition and experience) to instil unquestioning obedience, it does not come naturally.  

Groups can make more extreme decisions than the individuals would on their own (called group polarisation) and our natural desire for harmony and agreement can lead to bad decisions (known as groupthink). There are ways of dealing with these dangers (Note: Group Decision Making)

In the last 30 years management has insisted on its right to manage in the workplace; it should give everyone pause for thought that in the time corporate results have declined, wages have been stagnant, but boardroom pay has ballooned. See for example Myth of Free Market Prosperity on the Evonomics web-site.


One of the reasons to be concerned about massive concentrations of wealth is not envy, it is purely that money translates directly into political power. Money can be used to subsidise newspapers and TV channels to promote the interests of their owners or buy face time with politicians. If necessary money can buy arms and hitmen. Money can be used to bribe or can be withheld. 

Democracy means one person one vote, money just sidesteps this. The idea that money is a just reward for hard work is a powerful frame of reference for the perpetuation of wealth. It ignores everything else

  • if you inherit you did nothing but get lucky at birth
  • if you collect rent you are not creating any value it is just a private from of tax for the use of some other resource
  • if you are paid a huge amount of money as compensation for risk taking but the risk you take is with other people’s money – you are not personally at risk
  • if you are paid more but suffer less stress than your harried and hassled workforce you are either lucky, greedy, insensitive, hypocritical, or sociopathic (at least one and possibly many of these at the same time) 

The reason that sortition (selection by lot) must have a part to play in a democracy (as the Ancient Greeks recognised) and in holistic political economy is simply stop the subversion of democracy, where money and resources are so concentrated that it become a thinly disguised plutocracy. (Reybrouck)

Ideas and beliefs 

We saw earlier that Ideas and Beliefs were represented in the Human Activity system in two domains; knowledge and culture. The distinction was that knowledge can be said to be well founded belief, a test that does not apply to cultural beliefs however deeply and sincerely held. 

Ideas and Beliefs are the essential ingredients for what is called invisible power (Power Cube of Sussex University). They help create the spirit of the times (Zeitgeist, in Soft Systems). They can become a paradigm or   controlling power. Gramsci’s idea of hegemony can be though of as a form of soft (invisible) power. Hegemony is established through the cultural, moral and ideological leadership by the dominant classes to persuade the dominated classes (workers) that their interests are being served by it (they have false consciousness as a result) see (Powercube). However the discussion of Hegemony in the Gramsci Reader cites the use of force as well as the consent won through ideas (Gramsci, Galbraith, Our Natural Selves)

One of the tasks for holistic political economy is win support for ideas and beliefs that are rooted in the collaborative and social aspects of human nature. This couldn’t be more important. 

Combining sources of power

In the last 30 years management has insisted on its right to manage in the workplace and this has been reinforced through changes to in the political settlement. The debate has been framed in such as way that knowledge of the success of cooperation is ignored and where it is acknowledged it is kept inside businesses. It can be useful to have teamwork and cooperation to increase profits but we wouldn't want the idea to catch on more widely. A set of ideas and beliefs have been mobilised that emphasise competition and allow for no alternative. Individual leadership is lionised and groups are made up of like-minded individuals who reward themselves handsomely. Resources are concentrated reinforcing the power of the already powerful.

It should give everyone pause for thought that in the time corporate results have declined, wages have been stagnant, but boardroom pay has ballooned. See for example Myth of Free Market Prosperity on the Evonomics web-site.

One of the reasons for the failure of the left has been it abject failure to mobilise any intellectualy coherent alternative to this (essentially Social Darwinist) point of view, when competition is seen as the driver of evolution liberal economics becomes a reflection of reality.