Crick Centre Associate Fellow Henry Tam looks at the lessons we can learn from history about power inequalities
Political education is often concerned with explaining the workings of present day government institutions and electoral arrangements. But to convey what democratic politics is really about, we must engage with how it has developed over time in response to the perennial threat of power inequalities.
History has taught us that power can take many forms – money, weapons, status, land, authority; and if any individual or group is allowed to amass much greater power than others, then the powerful elite is liable to act to the detriment of everyone else. Let us take four specific lessons from the past that have been instructive to this day.
First, even the most conservative-minded about the need for reducing inequalities domestically are quick to recognise that in international affairs, a balance of power is essential to guarantee good relations. If one country is becoming so powerful, or is forming a formidable alliance with another, that others are at risk of having to bow down to its demands, then something must be done to check its rise, or counter-alliances must be formed. This is reflected in diplomatic manoeuvres and military strategies through the ages. The only reason why some refuse to promote at home a principle they would wholeheartedly follow when dealing with others abroad, is that at home, they rather hope their own superior power would go unchallenged.
Secondly, from the overthrowing of kings by the Athenians and Romans, through the English Civil War and the French Revolution, to the rejection of colonial rule and military dictatorships since the Second World War, the pattern is clear. If a few could ‘take the throne’ by birth-right or belligerence, they would use their power to shield themselves from having to justify what they did to others who were subject to their whims and decisions. When leaders are only answerable to their private conscience or a god whose voice only they can hear, the danger of oppression is deep and permanent. But the system of absolute rule can be displaced, not just in relation to countries, but to businesses too, as worker-owned enterprises and multi-stakeholder cooperatives have demonstrated. The more those in charge have to count on the consent of those they oversee, the less likely they will treat the latter irresponsibly.
Thirdly, even if the route to the top is based on an open electoral process, there must be on-going checks and balances that can constrain, and if necessary, remove those in ruling positions. Louise Napoleon won the popular vote in France and made himself Emperor. The Nazis won seats in an election and proceeded to dismantle democracy in Germany. Without adequate power or dedication to keep watch over those who have taken control, misrule can quickly entrench itself. Democratic systems have to keep learning and improving so that public deception can be more effectively exposed, the power of money to buy political influence curtailed, and the abuse of power more swiftly detected and rectified. From national presidents to corporate CEOs, there can be no guarantee that they will not deliberately put their own interests above those of the people they have authority over, or make seriously erroneous judgements of what should be done. The only reliable redress is that they are subject to scrutiny that is backed by enforceable demands to make them step down as a last resort.
The final lesson points to the impact of power polarisation on social cohesion. When a powerful elite relentlessly elevate themselves to an ever higher level of power with attendant privileges and luxuries forever beyond the reach of others, their dismissive attitude towards the plight of everyone else corrodes all bonds of solidarity. The trajectories of the collapsing Roman Empire, the degenerative downfall of dynasties in China, the disintegration of the Ancien Regime, the intensifying sense of alienation amidst the widening inequalities today in the US, Europe, and more broadly, the global corporatised society – all point to an unhappy ending, unless the power gap is narrowed between the have-not and have-lots.
Those with power will always try to write the rules on who will get more power and who less. That is why we need a political system that can curb the growth of power inequalities, and where a temporary or conditional concentration of power is required under certain circumstances, it is essential the system can counter-balance that greater power with democratic arrangements to protect the rest of us from any folly or abuse emanating from the powerful few. This applies to government, business, and every form of human association where the question of how power is distributed is unavoidable.
Henry Tam is Director of Question the Powerful and author of Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle (new edition 2015).