Visions What is power?

What is power?

by Jeremy Gilbert

Power can mean the capacity simply to make others do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do by bribing them, tricking them or physically forcing them. Power can also be thought of as something productive, as the capacity to make things happen in the world. Power operates on many different scales - from the power of financial institutions to wreck whole economies, to my (limited) power to make my 5 year-old go to bed on time.

all power is collective and all power is about organising

One important thing about power is that it always exists in relationship to someone or something else. Power isn’t something that one person or group has which they can then simply hand to someone else, or grab more of for themselves as if it were a physical object. It doesn’t flow from one place to another, like water in a pipe.  Power is more like electric current in a circuit, which only comes into existence once both poles of the circuit have been activated.  At the same time power can take many forms and power relations between different people can be complex. I have the power to determine bedtimes and make my daughter physically stay in her room - she has the power to make this a very uncomfortable process for me if she really wants to (she generally doesn’t, for the record).

So all power is collective and all power is about organising. Power is always about co-ordinating the activities of bodies in certain spaces, whether those are bodies on an assembly line, in a school or in a household. What makes Rupert Murdoch so powerful is no particular quality that Rupert Murdoch has, but his capacity to direct the activities of thousands of employees who are in turn able to influence the ideas and activities of millions of views and readers.

Cities are important centres
of power

A city just is a large number of human bodies living close to each other. Within a city there are many forms of power which get exercised - planning, policing, employing, buying, selling, talking, entertaining - in fact pretty much all of the activity in cities can be thought of as in some way caught up with complex sets of power relations. Since ancient times, elites have been worried by the possibility that urban populations might use their power by challenging the authority of those elites, and have gone out of their way to ensure that that didn’t happen. The great boulevards of Paris, for example, were designed to replace the most rebellious working-class neighbourhoods with wide, straight roads, allowing the army easy access at times of political unrest.

At a very local level, communities are able to take considerable action to shape their everyday environments

In London, the power of the wealthy elites is most visible in the City of London - the City is basically an autonomous city-state where the central government, the Mayor’s office or the Greater London Assembly have little control.  At the same time, the power of property speculators to shape the lives of every inhabitant of the city goes virtually unchecked by London’s government. At a very local level, communities are able to take considerable action to shape their everyday environments and many councils encourage genuine participation in decision-making. But with council budgets slashed and the issue that matters most to people - the cost of housing - completely out of the hands of local government, there is ultimately little they can do.  

The power of property speculators to shape the city is not just confined to rents and mortgages. The live music and club scenes in most of London are dying on their feet, largely because speculative residential property developments are going up in every place where it used to be possible for Londoners to congregate and make some noise.

Supporters of city and regional government often talk about the need for central government to ‘hand over’, ’share’ or ‘give away’ power to citizens and localities. But this is not how it works. Let’s think about the example of my little daughter. What’s going to happen if I just say ‘okay from now on you decide when you go to bed’? Will she suddenly be liberated to make her own decisions about bedtimes and start making them effectively? Or will she, lacking any real capacity to do that, end up going to sleep according to patterns which are determined by other external factors (food intake, exercise, the scheduling of children’s TV, the number of new toys in her bedroom, and most likely, the activities and opinions of her older sister, who shares a room with her)? Of course it would be the latter.

In a similar way, just giving local communities the legal authority to make some decisions without giving them any real capacity to use their power effectively ends up handing the real power to other agencies (usually those looking for profits).

Democratising local government in places like London could only be a meaningful process if it went hand-in-hand with the active renewal of the labour movement (so that big employers don’t simply hold all the cards in a local areas), with the active reforms of the culture of overwork in many sectors, which means that few adult citizens have time to engage in civic politics, with renewed efforts to protect local culture from closure and privatisation (from libraries to gig venues) so community members can actually meet each other and form relationships in spaces not entirely dedicated to the generation of private profits.

local power will have to be actively created

In other words, it wouldn’t be possible for central government simply to ‘hand over’ power to local people: instead local power would have to be actively created.  Above all power in places like London could only be meaningful if real legal authority to intervene in the property market - through rent controls and other measures - were handed over to democratically-elected bodies: they could be councils, the GLA, or some other kind of body. That, I think, is how power relations would have to change for a good London to become possible in my lifetime.

Jeremy teaches cultural theory at the University of East London, does a lot of political analysis and organises dance parties.