Reclaiming Power


The previous presentation (Political Legitimacy) defined the fundamental task as the recapture of fugitive power. Power is now highly diffused and in many instances beyond the traditional ‘democratic’ structures that gave Hobbs’ social contract the legitimacy it has enjoyed for several centuries. Developments in the late-twentieth century (the revolving door between politics and business, globalisation, and the diminution of the state’s role in some of its traditional spheres of operation) have altered this balance between power and legitimacy.

Essentially, the social contract has been radically revised without consultation or consent. With good reason, the aggrieved party; the public who have surrendered power to the ‘sovereign or state’, are unhappy. There is an ongoing effort by people to redress the balance. This presentation attempts to give some pointers to that end.

The Ways of Complex Systems

To some extent, the present muddle is caused by the fact that societies, at all levels, behave as nested complex systems. With the passage of time, it is only natural for power to fragment and dissolve into an impenetrable filigree of systems and sub-systems. Acceptance of this proposition imposes three constraints:

  • Complexity has a tendency to increase; it is not feasible to try to make things simple.
  • It is also not possible to go back to a specific desirable past state. The system moves forward; there is no rewind button.
  • Prediction of future events is beyond our means. Progress is made in reiterative steps; actions, monitoring, review, actions…

The Age of the ‘Expert’

Business is not the only ‘villain’ when it comes to fugitive power. The ‘expert’ has replaced the priest as the font of all knowledge, including ‘knowledge’ that is presumed to be out of the reach of ordinary mortals. Experts exercise largely undisputed power to an excessive, and damaging, degree. As Katharine Farrell pointed out, political concerns are now “seen primarily as questions of how to choose between scientifically formulated options.” People affected by experts’ actions are kept at a distance.

Those working in fields marked by ‘wicked problems’ ignored the complexity of their disciplines and decided (implicitly and without much thought) to treat such problems as being ‘tame’. Horst Rittel coined the expressions of wicked and tame to describe complex and linear phenomena respectively (see ). Defining wicked problems and selecting possible solutions require close involvement by all stakeholders, in addition to the ‘experts’.

Moreover, as the figure below depicts, definition of ‘wicked’ problems and solutions is an evolving process in which both are regularly evaluated and re-evaluated. The ‘waterfall’ method (see figure) might be appropriate for ‘tame’ problems, but it is decidedly inappropriate in real life situations rife with ‘wicked’ features. Any change to the current convention, however, is seen as a serious threat to the ‘experts’ and their privileged position of power.

definition of ‘wicked’ problems and solutions is an evolving process in which both are regularly evaluated and re-evaluated

The FIRST TASK in recapturing fugitive power, therefore, has to be a determined effort to expose the limits to expertise as well as the need for all stakeholders to be thoroughly involved at all stages of problem definition, analysis, and solution. Participation, as understood and practiced currently, is simply not enough. Challenge to specialists and experts is far from easy, as the recent controversy in Britain about the MMR vaccine amply demonstrates. But little will be achieved without it.

Essentially, this is a battle to win hearts and minds. The present paradigm based on the supremacy of the ‘expert’ is well entrenched. More to the point, people are not necessarily interested in capturing fugitive power from business and the experts. There is much comfort in thinking that someone out there knows what he or she is doing. The first step is to convince people at large that this is merely a mirage.

There Are Few Fundamental Truths

Complex systems theory tells us that there are very few absolutes. And the further one moves away from simple mechanistic systems the more obvious this axiom become. The present structure is founded on a number of ‘fundamental truths’ or ‘storylines’ that we are assured are beyond discussion. Growth in the economy is essential it is asserted. Moreover, growth has to be substantial and growth itself has to grow year on year. Marks and Spencer, a company valued at between 10 and 15 billion pounds, reported annual profits of three-quarters of a billion and this was seen, unquestionably, as failure requiring a radical shake-up at all levels.

There are other ‘fundamental truths’ that have to be accepted as articles of the new faith that has superseded religion. The economy is supreme; all else is subordinate to its needs. We can only be happy if the economy is doing well; i.e. growing fast. A successful economy is necessary to pay for improvements in health, education, etc. But we are also told that government should disengage from its traditional role of looking after the welfare of the nation! Social progress will only come through ‘trickle down’; the rich should get richer and that would percolate down to the less well off. Above all else, governments should not stand in the way of business.

The above ‘articles of faith’ have been shown over and over to be, at least, suspect. The sustainability of continual growth is now very much in doubt, but this topic is taboo because the alternative brings us back to the sinful spectre of socialism. Many respected authors have questioned the sustainability and benefits of growth. One of the best analyses of these issues appears in Richard Douthwaite’s The Growth Illusion (see in particular chapters 7, 8, 9, 10 and 15). Even the need for a successful economy has now come into question; as shown by the success of healthcare in Cuba with an economy devastated by US imposed sanctions. Life expectancy at birth is on a par with that in the ‘advanced’ industrial economies and the under-5 mortality rate is lower than that in Washington DC.

‘Fundamental truths’ and ‘storylines’ are concise messages (sometimes referred to as memes) designed not only to promote a concept favoured by some but also to curtail further discussion or questioning. They are closely associated with fugitive power. The net result is compliance by the majority with the wishes of those benefiting from the status quo. The one basic question that evades the spotlight is: what is the economy for? Concerns such as happiness, contentment, and social cohesion are not on the agenda it seems. They are not quantifiable; hence they are irrelevant.

This brings us to the SECOND TASK in capturing fugitive power: to refuse to surrender to fundamental truths. This is again a matter of education and perseverance. The paradigm, as in the case of the ‘experts’, is well entrenched.

Business Is Not All Bad

Noreen Hertz, in The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy, gave some examples of corporations in many parts of the world that provide ‘public goods’ that were previously seen as part of the states’ function. This is evident especially in developing countries in which states were emasculated; principally by Structural Adjustment Programmes geared to converting these countries to liberal economics.

This drift into issue areas vacated by the state is not the same as the trend, seen for instance in the National Health Service in Britain, for governments to contract out some of their function to private sector providers. And it is not the same as activities, such as the provision of computers for schools, designed with marketing and public relations in mind. We are concerned in the present context in ‘public goods’ funded by corporations that do not seem to have a direct link to their core business. Clearly, there is always an ultimate link to business, otherwise some shareholders might object (possibly through the courts) to purely altruistic actions.

Fundamentally, businesses seek profits and growth. However, they often respond to external or internal pressure to act as sensible and caring corporations. In some respects, this is the ultimate step in the merger between governments and businesses. Some, as in the case of Noreen Hertz, perceives this as “business takes over the role of government.” The question remains: why do they do it when there is no discernible link to their main activity? Basically, many corporations, as in the case of Shell, have learnt that it is in their best interest to respond positively to pressure and criticism from the public or shareholders, or both.

There are obvious pitfalls to the tendency for business to become the main source for welfare provision. However, it is useful to consider the positive aspects opened by this development as well. In essence, it suggests the THIRD TASK in recapturing fugitive power: well organised pressure groups can put sufficient pressure on corporations to force them to adopt less aggressive and more responsible practices.

Pressure groups, such as Friends of the Earth, NGOs, research institutes, academic institutions, etc. offer massive variety. Sometimes they come together, and occasionally they act against each other. They often emerge and then disband without trace. However, this variety and spontaneity is useful when viewed from cybernetic and complexity perspectives.

‘Fugitive power’ (see Political Legitimacy) arose from the increasing complexity of systems that shape our lives. The key feature of ‘fugitive power’ is that it has slipped from easily identifiable, and limited, publicly accountable institutions into a multitude of business interests. In short, fugitive power possesses a large amount of variety.

Cybernetics’ Law of Requisite Variety, more commonly known as Ashby’s Law, deals with control of systems: in the present context the recapture of fugitive power. To control a system with a given level of variety, one is confronted by two choices: either reduce the variety of the system to be controlled, or give the controlling system at least as much variety as the system to be controlled. Traffic management provides a good illustration. The authorities could either reduce variety (by means of rules such as driving on one side of the road and giving way) or recruit a traffic policeman/ woman for each and every driver on the road. They naturally choose the first alternative.

For the foreseeable future, it would seem that fugitive power could not be recaptured by rules and regulations designed to reduce its variety. We are left with the ‘messy’ alternative of matching the variety of fugitive power. This is where pressure and interest groups come in. In a complex and highly chaotic manner (typical of the way these groups function) comes self-organisation. As Noreen Hetrz put it, protest should be seen as “the catalyst for change.” For the moment, that seems the most effective way to recapture fugitive power from the globalised business world.

Need to Recapture Politics

As matters stand, public trust in politics and politicians is at low ebb. It is wrong to assume that Bush, Blair, and the war on Iraq have caused this decline. The process has been going on for quite some time. The consistent decrease in numbers of people taking part in elections gives a good indication of the haemorrhaging loss in legitimacy.

And the problem is to a large extent of the politicians own making. They have maintained for long that business (without boundaries or political interference) must come first. It is not unreasonable for the electorate to lose interest if politicians, by their own admission, are powerless in issue areas that really matter. When they take decisive action, as in the case of the Iraq war, they give every indication that they are doing so to promote their own, largely business, interests or are acting on behalf of large corporations (in Iraq’s case oil, weapons, and construction industries).

The influence of governments within the economic sphere is dwindling. Their role in providing ‘public goods’, they also claim, is largely a function of economics. What is left? Beyond soft regulation of public services supplied by providers from the private sector, there is in the main only defence and public order left. This is not accidental; it is part and parcel of the ‘silent takeover’ and ‘fugitive power’. Governments are progressively seen by businesses as means to keep populations under control. The clash between people in developing countries and big multinational corporations and international agencies such as the IMF is closely associated with what the leading industrial powers now depict as ‘terrorism’. The battle is not about religion or politics, but about a massive social reengineering project focused on converting all people to one unified economic philosophy. The philosophy itself, of course, demands radical social and political changes within the subject nations; hence the confusion about what the fight is all about.

Transformations within ‘traditional democracies’ are no less radical. Repressive laws and restrictions are being introduced regularly, all in the name of the ‘war on terror’. In the process, minor terrorist organisations are being given enhanced status, which then helps them to recruit even more fanatics. But the leading economic forces are unconcerned: a terrified populace would accept anything that promises security.

A look at the statistics published by the US State Department in May each year readily demonstrates the sham of the ‘terror’ issue. First, the problem is not new. Second, causalities resulting from terrorist activity have been in slow decline since the mid-1980s (notwithstanding 9/11!). The only exception has been 2003, thanks to the war in Iraq. Third, the target for terrorists is mainly business, more precisely American business. For more information on this subject please visit the US State Department website and look for International Terrorism Reports (see also Terrorism).

This brings us to the FOURTH TASK in the effort to recapture fugitive power: political activism. The most appropriate channel is, yet again, pressure groups pursuing single or multiple issues. This is not easy, but it has to be done. Reference to the ‘war on terror’ was not a diversion. Fear, and intimidation, is being used widely to suppress dissent. To be successful, pressure groups will have to act as peaceful (I stress peaceful) guerrilla groups. And pressure groups can be most persuasive. About 25 to 30 neoconservative intellectuals cajoled Bush to try to change the course of history by attacking Iraq (see Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper, 4 May 2003). Yes, the aims of such groups could be good or bad. This is the nature of this complex beast. But there is no denying that they could be powerful agents for change.

Spreading Knowledge and Information

The above task, as with the other tasks, is not easy to undertake. For pressure groups to be effective, they have to convince a highly sceptical audience. The audience does not trust politicians and the assortment of experts and journalists that inhabit ‘the system’. There is no reason to think they will trust pressure group any better. This is especially so when it is known that the mass media and big business are one and the same. This marriage extends to every aspect of knowledge and information; including magazines, films, music, the Internet, etc. (see ).

The main message being put about is one of the threats that societies in the ‘civilised’ countries face from foreign religious fanatics and mindless terrorists. Governments are positioning themselves within that message as the last line of defence against these hordes. Questioning of governments’ actions or intentions on any issue could be painted as an effort to weaken governments just when they need to be forceful and resolute. Pressure groups and individuals, therefore, have a mountain to climb; as experienced for instance by people like Michael Moore and John Pilger.

The disincentives for pressure groups do not end there. Those in power have another message that they try to propagate: resistance is futile (a similar refrain to that enunciated on TV by the nasty Borg in Star Trek!). When viewed from the isolation of a small group contemplating action against a government or a large, possibly global corporation, futility is an ever-present preoccupation. Again, not easy, but it has to be done.


This presentation sought to highlight tasks that have to be undertaken to make a difference in the effort to recapture fugitive power. The list is of course not exhaustive. I have tried to avoid dogmatic statements about how the tasks could be undertaken. Just as important, we have to accept the fact imposed by complexity that there is no natural end to the process and that it is inappropriate to define a final destination. We are talking about direction of travel.