The Nature of Power: A Complex and Intricate Dance

 ‘Power’, said Marcus Aurelius, ‘is something that can only be exercised within oneself, upon ones own mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength’. [Meditations, Book VI, Ch. 8] It is a question that we seldom ask these days – what really is power; where is it found; and how can it be really exercised?

Power is a multifaceted concept that extends beyond mere authority or control. It is an intricate web of influence, perception, and ability to effect change. Defining power involves understanding its sources, mechanisms, and limitations. According to political theorist Robert A. Dahl, power is the ability of one actor to make another actor do something they would not otherwise do (Dahl, 1957).

To What Extent Are People in Positions of Power Actually in Power?

Prime ministers, ministers of state, and CEOs of large companies are often perceived as the epitome of power. However, their ability to exercise this power is frequently constrained by various factors. For instance, political leaders like Narendra Modi, or our own Prime minister Rishi Sunak, operate within a democratic framework where their decisions are subject to parliamentary approval, party politics, and public opinion. CEOs, despite their significant influence within their corporations, must answer to boards of directors, shareholders, and regulatory bodies.

The limitations on their power are numerous. In democracies, politicians must navigate a labyrinth of bureaucracy, legal constraints, and public accountability. This often results in a dilution of their power as they are forced to compromise and negotiate. Similarly, CEOs face market competition, regulatory environments, and internal company dynamics that can hinder their ability to implement changes unilaterally.

The Performance of Power in Politics

In democratic systems, politicians often find themselves wearing a metaphorical mask, performing an alter ego that aligns with public expectations and media portrayals. This performance of power, rather than the actual wielding of it, becomes crucial for maintaining their position. The notion that politicians must “act” power rather than be powerful is vividly illustrated in their public personas and campaign strategies.

Narendra Modi, for example, has cultivated a strongman image, portraying himself as a decisive leader capable of transformative change. Rishi Sunak, with his polished public appearances and careful articulation, embodies the image of a competent and reliable leader. Even Keir Starmer presents himself as a principled and steady alternative to the current government. These public personas are meticulously crafted to resonate with voters and maintain their support.

However, the performance often takes a toll on their true selves. The constant need to project power and confidence can lead to a disconnection from their authentic personalities, resulting in a deranged or altered character. This is not merely an act of deception but a necessity imposed by the nature of political life. Power in this sense can be deeply corrosive to the character of any politician, and takes a Herculean effort, and large portions of luck to maintain integrity, honesty, and vulnerability.

Power and the Media: The Role of Communication

Often in British democracy, to effectively wield power, politicians must often bypass traditional bureaucratic structures and communicate directly with the public. This is typically achieved through the media, which acts as a filter and amplifier of their messages. Only by engaging with the public can politicians hope to turn the cogs of power and initiate change.

Liz Truss provides a poignant example of this phenomenon. Rory Stewart, a fellow politician, recounts an incident where Truss, uninterested in genuine policy development, demanded a hastily concocted seven-point plan for national parks. This plan, quickly handed to the BBC for publication, served more as a performative act of power than a substantive policy initiative (Stewart, 2023). Truss’s actions illustrate how the desire for power can eclipse the commitment to actual governance.

The Realities of Power

The case of Liz Truss is emblematic of a broader trend where the allure of power can overshadow its responsible exercise. The performative aspect of power is often prioritized over its substantive application. Politicians like Truss crave the appearance of decisiveness and control, even if it means neglecting the follow-through necessary for real change.

In contrast, Rory Stewart himself represents a different approach to power. His dedication to detailed policy work and genuine change highlights the potential for power to be exercised responsibly and effectively. However, such an approach is increasingly rare in a political landscape dominated by media performance and public perception. Stewart, to-date, has failed as a politician in the United Kingdom precisely because he refuses to engage in the performative aspects of being a politician.

So what?

The nature of power is a complex interplay of influence, perception, and action. Those in positions of authority, whether in politics or business, are often constrained by external factors that limit their ability to exercise power fully. In democratic systems, the need to perform power complicates the genuine exercise of it, leading to a disconnection between public personas and true capabilities.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of power hinges on the ability to engage directly with the public, leapfrogging bureaucratic inertia and leveraging media influence. As the cases of Modi, Sunak, Truss, and Stewart demonstrate, power is not just about holding a position but about the delicate dance of perception, communication, and action. This nuanced understanding of power reveals both its potential and its pitfalls, underscoring the importance of authenticity and responsibility in its exercise.

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