minute read

What is Power Now?

minute read

What is Power Now?

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The last couple of years, despite or perhaps because of, the crisis caused by the pandemic, have been a creative period of theory and practice about social change. Terms such as ‘community power’, ‘communicative power’ and ‘new power’ all describe the way that new communication media is shifting social focus from institutions to networks, from clunky ‘broadcast’ to a more open multi-media communication and from top-down action to a change that is actively participated in and made by people themselves.  

Every successful Labour government has had what we might call a new ‘operating system’ which it used to navigate decisions about how to govern, linked to the innovative shifts taking place in society at that time: in 1945 it was a mix of Keynesianism and Fordism; in the 1960s it was corporatism; in 1997 it was a mix of supply side reforms plus new public management. Labour must now adapt its thinking to today’s emerging world if it is to succeed not just in gaining office but using its time in power to make sustainable change. In his first conference speech as party leader, Keir Starmer talked about ‘the sound of the future arriving’. We want to help deliver that vision, not least so that Labour is seen as facilitating a more productive, creative and innovative future.

Thinking about Power 

Any political party serious about changing society for the better must think long and hard about power. Where does it find the power to achieve the changes it promises? How should it generate democratic consent to do more? What can be done by regulation and what requires negotiation? What are the limits of the state’s power and how is this power best deployed? 

In recent times the Labour Party has tended to think about power in simple terms: you win an election by offering the voters a selection of attractive ‘retail policies’ and then use the power of the state to legislate for those changes. But, as we have seen, this leads either to defeat or to short-term policies that are easy to reverse, leaving little lasting impact. 

There are many different sites of power: the market, the media, local councils and community organisations, large social institutions such as universities and media corporations the BBC, activists and ordinary citizens. They all play a role in change and a wise future government will need to be able to work with these different levels of power.  

As the Brexit referendum showed, too many people feel politically excluded and voiceless; their trust in government is very low because too often the political system has failed to listen to them and deliver for them. Through crisis after crisis, our machinery of government shows itself to be brittle, out-of-touch and inadequate to match the tasks it faces. Hollowed out by years of austerity and neglect and patched together through opportunism and self-interest, our government institutions are not fit for purpose and our democracy doesn’t feel very democratic. Government decision making is reactive, short-term and too often focussed on gaining media cut-through. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few people who know few of the answers. A future government, even with the best intentions, cannot simply inherit and continue this approach to governing and expect anything to change for the better. 

We can’t transform society without recognising that the vehicles we use to change things – political parties and democratic government – are also social institutions that themselves require fundamental change. We need to think deeply about what power is, should and could be in a good society. 

This is urgent because global challenges such as the climate crisis mean we face radical disruptions to our lifestyles and livelihoods. Adaptation can’t be imposed by government top-down, it will need considered, informed consent and democratic arrangements capable of delivering and sustaining a just transition. A future government will be making hard choices about our environment, energy, food and ways of life. Citizens will need to make a different sort of good life for themselves. The role of a governing party will be to empower and equip us all for this change. 

Power is changing

Article after article, book after book, broadcast after broadcast describe the emergence of new social movements: movements on climate change such as Extinction Rebellion, for racial justice like Black Lives Matter, or conspiracy-based movements such as QAnon  –networks that range from global movements with millions of participants to local mutual aid groups for the tiniest village. 

The internet and social media platforms enable people to connect and communicate across continents – to learn, to share, to organise swiftly and to stay in minute-by-minute contact. Communities are no longer restricted just to places but can become communities of concern or passion, local and global. Information now flows through networks rather than just from institutions. This presents huge opportunities as well as challenges.

For many, this new, communicative power feels creative and energising, allowing everyone to participate, not simply by giving their opinion but by co-creating solutions. Crucially, this is a shift from ‘top down’ organising to horizontal organising. The new movements are characterised by ways of working that are open, emergent and unstructured. What is also striking is that they are not simply asking for things, but doing things. Because ideas can be shared so quickly, others can learn, copy and improve, creating the possibility of a proliferation of solutions. People are implementing change, not asking for it. 

The internet has distributed communication power far beyond the old elites. But at the same time, it has created new power-brokers: the corporations that own the platforms and distribute the new forms of communication. Social media enables campaigns to gain huge followings very quickly and can register views through clicks and likes immediately, but these followings can swiftly shift away to the next new thing. They can create entertaining examples, such as the Boaty Mcboatface vote, but may also be shallow-rooted, as people quickly move on. At their most dangerous they can also become the mechanism for the spread of conspiracy theories, racism and worse. 

New power and old power

In one of the best recent books written on the topic, Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans1 describe ‘New Power’ as a ‘current’, in which power is shared and grown, made by many -  open, participative, distributed. If power is a current, the aim must be to ‘channel it’. ‘Old power’, by contrast, treats power as a ‘currency’ – held by a few, guarded, kept close, where the intent is to capture and hoard power, keeping others away from it. While ‘old power’ offers very little scope for participation, ‘new power’ seems to supply space to share, shape, fund, produce and co-own. 

Timms and Heimans suggest that the values of old power and new power are different:

Old power’s democratic institutions and corporations are trying to exist side by side with New Power movements and enterprises such as Wikipedia, Facebook, AirB&B and Uber. 

But, as Timms and Heimans make clear, new power is not always positive, and old power is not entirely without benefit. There are dangers in chaotic, populist movements and safeguards in ‘old power’ rules and processes. New Power enterprises may exploit as well as liberate. They can be ‘anti-expert’ rumour mills. So-called ‘New Power’ companies like Facebook and Twitter are ‘harvesting’ our data for profit and increasingly controlling our social behaviours. 

Power relationships are, at any one time, embedded in our social institutions which typically change slowly and fitfully. So ‘old power’ can be seen as the solidification of past power relationships into organisations, protocol and procedures. Although they may seem slow and old-fashioned to some, embedded in those institutions are the gains, modifications and the compromises that have been won in the past. Because of campaigning, legislation and experience, our social institutions have, over time, found ways to solve problems, to create stability, to regulate abuse and ensure equity in ways that may be missing in the new messy ways of doing things.  

By contrast, new emergent movements can be transitory, delicate, experimental, tentative, sometimes quite bonkers. They are capable of drift and may dissolve easily, but they are increasingly where social energy is at its strongest. 

Why power now seems challenging

For many established politicians, the idea of a more pluralist politics – of sharing and devolving power, or facilitating the accrual of ‘new power’ through self-organising – feels challenging, risky. After expending so much energy trying to ‘win power’, it can seem counter-intuitive, if not daft, to give it away. Trusting citizens and community institutions to collaborate to solve their own problems feels risky. What happens if they fail? Won’t the politicians take the blame if it goes wrong and receive none of the rewards if it works? A key line of inquiry is therefore how governments can learn and adapt to new power approaches and find ways to create frameworks and support for experimentation and self-organising in ways that don’t simply overwhelm or co-opt. 

The Left has always understood that the holders of power are very determined to keep it – and the asymmetry of power means that a few very rich and powerful people can out-gun millions of less powerful people. So progressive leaders have often felt the need to centralise power and to wield national power in order to match the strength of the powerful interests they are trying to curb. 

New technology has created global corporations – Amazon, Google, Apple – which for all their innovation wield enormous amounts of ‘old power’. New challenges are created by the concentration of ‘communication power’ through these monopolised, global platforms. We can’t simply take for granted the benefits of working through these platforms. Rather we need to examine how our communication media change the nature of our politics and how they create both opportunities and threats for our democracy. 

How does the power of ownership, capital and wealth fit into these new models? Often hidden from any democratic process, this power can be further consolidated by new technologies. So we need to think about who owns social media and the platforms we are using. Are there other potential ownership models?

The communication power of social media is both liberating and uneven. It offers space for anyone with access to a smart phone to share, upload and comment, but is it a domain for the technologically savvy and the social-media aware, the global young, middle class and educated few? How well do the very elderly, the financially struggling, or people with illness or disability navigate these spaces? 

Cyberspace can be scary and hostile. Those MPs and activists that have found themselves the targets of trolling have learned the hard way that ‘new power’ offers none of the formal protections and at least promised courtesy of conventional politics. Hate speech in cyberspace goes beyond what we would tolerate in face-to-face encounters. How might we recreate the social rules and civic responsibilities of conventional meetings to protect each other? What legal protections might we need? 

Finally, this virtual, viral organising can seem wide but shallow. Social movements surge and then disappear. The danger is drift as people join, then desert for the next new thing. Social movements are also, as we have seen, open to manipulation by charismatic individuals and vulnerable to fake news. The very algorithms that build networks and community also screen out disconfirming truths and challenges, often further polarising those who debate in such spaces. How can social movements turn communication power into action?

We might therefore create a matrix of strengths and weaknesses:

New power meets old power – the new power of 45-degree politics. 

‘New power’ must not simply sweep away the old, because social institutions and the authority of democratic government is necessary if we are to achieve change at scale: to redistribute resource, to challenge greed and self-interest and to intervene against powerful interests, for example to protect our planet from climate change. 

As network thinker Manuel Castells points out 2, while social movements can change the way we think, they can’t achieve change in the world without accessing political programmes and institutions. They are part, but only part, of the shift that needs to take place. 

It will always be a balance – a blend of new and old power – what Compass has referred to as 45 degree politics:3 the diagonal meeting point of older vertical power and newer horizontal power. Power Now is the recognition of the need for this old/new, top/bottom, relationship. We need to find the right balance for the good society. A progressive future government will have to think about how to combine old and new power – how to protect, support and sustain self-organising at the same time as offering a safe and resilient framework for the services we need and setting the values and boundaries to protect us from abuse of power. 

In the following chapters we explore what this might mean. In Chapter 2 we enter the world of work and discover how power now could help to create ‘good work’. In Chapter 3, we look at places and how self-organising can be supported by local and national government. In Chapter 4 we examine new power approaches to public services, and in Chapter 5 we reimagine a different ‘humble’ state, not controlling and directing, but convening, supporting and channelling. In Chapter 6 we explore at the power of platforms, good and bad, and how to regulate them. Chapter 7 addresses the new democratic settlement we will need in the future. Finally, in Chapter 8, we investigate the sort of relationships we need to create a different distribution of power: relationships between state and citizens, between old and new ways of doing things and between each other. All these questions need to form part of the work of any political party that seeks to govern and shape the 21st Century.

  • Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans, New Power (1st edn, Macmillan 2018),p.18

  • Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope Social Movements in the Internet Age (1st edn, Polity, 2012)

  • Neal Lawson, 45 Degree Change (1st edn, Compass, 2019)