There was an interview in the Guardian yesterday with Tory MP for Penrith and all-round interesting chap Rory Stewart. He restates some of his level-headed, informed and compelling criticisms of NATO intervention and statebuilding. Simply put, these efforts do not work because foreigners cannot hope to understand the complex and diverse societies they are attempting to transform. These views were informed by his travels around Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he gained experience of the different systems of law, custom and political authority operating from region to region, hamlet to hamlet.
He’s now become an MP and has found the rules and customs of Westminster to be as baffling and intricate as those of any Pashtun jirga. His reflection that most MPs don’t reflect, don’t think very hard about Britain’s future and don’t have much of an understanding of the society that they govern. So far, so in tune with the present (well justified) anti-politician zeitgeist: professional politicians form a discrete elite, insulated from the concerns of ordinary people, specialists only in the art of influencing the news-cycle, maximising expense claims and moving up the greasy pole. Rory Stewart is a bit of an outlier in such a world, a thinker and something of a neo-Victorian adventurer. Parliament otherwise bears testament to the arguments of Michels and other elitists that organised party machines would eventually give rise to new oligarchies.
But Stewart doesn’t think that politicians or any other elites actually rule: ‘We’re not run by anybody. The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere.’ In support of this claim he notes that journalists, politicians and financiers all regard themselves as powerless, that policy is not effective: ‘You get there and you pull the lever, and nothing happens.’
I think Stewart’s arguments are a bit misleading. Part of the problem is the myopia of power and privilege, the lack of experience of real powerlessness and the sense of being subject to forces completely outside of one’s control, forces that threaten to rip apart the fabric of one’s life. But another aspect of the issue is the concept of power Stewart employs. He focuses on the inability of politicians and other elite actors to pull and lever or wave a wand to effect change, to exercise power in the sense of Russell’s ‘production of intended effects’. Well, why should we expect that to be possible? Britain is a liberal democracy under the rule of law. Groups who disagree with a particular policy or law have the opportunity to oppose it electorally, legally and through civil society. Policymaking is the result of compromises struck between diverse interests, the government is limited in its ability to ride roughshod over opposition.
Moving from an account of the ability of elites to exercise ‘power to’ and ‘power over’ others, it seems clear that there is plenty of power to go around in the UK if we consider the power embodied in the arrangements that comprise the status quo. Every society is structured by a set of institutionalised bargains struck between different conflict groups, i.e. competing interests, at various points in its history. A society’s laws, institutions, distribution of resources and customs are shaped by such bargains. Because they reflect the interests of conflict groups and the balance of forces between them, such structures systematically privilege some interests above others.
As immediately pointed out in the comment section in the online version of the interview with Stewart, Britain’s financial institutions were bailed out at cost to the taxpayer after the financial crisis struck. Alastair Darling probably didn’t desire to preside over such a bail out, but structural features of the British economy meant that the alternatives were, at the very least, costly and difficult. Those in the financial sector were able to secure their interests, in contrast to disabled persons now forced to pay a bedroom tax, due to power inequalities embodied in the structural features of the British economy, political system and legal system.
The UK is not run by omnipotent politicians able to pull levers to reshape society in an instant or global elites who can make the masses dance like puppets. The UK and other industrial democracies may well be sclerotic, with vested interests preventing effective policy making. But this doesn’t mean that there is no power in Britain. There is, and it is structural power that makes society resistant to transformation.