Occasionally, as Paul Samuelson once noted, one is tempted to write something that one can’t decide whether it’s something important, or something completely obvious. So it is here – if in doubt, go with humility and bet on the latter.
Power, in general, is the ability to impose one’s own preferences on somebody else, overriding whatever the person’s own preferences are.
So how does that come about?
It seems that there are two main ways.
The most straightforward way is to have some attribute that the other person lacks – in other words, there can be inherent differences between people. You can be stronger, or smarter, or better looking, or trained in a specific skill. This is the simplest form of power – the bully. I am stronger than you, therefore I can impose my will upon you. This kind of power is readily apparent, and understandable instinctively even to small children.
But this only gets you so far. Think about Hillary Clinton. She came close to having the ability to annihilate most of the human race with nuclear weapons. On what personal attributes did this arise? She has a certain wily cynicism, and a will to power. But she is so frail that she could barely stand up. She is so unlikable that even those voting for her now admit that nobody really liked her. She’s above average intelligence, but you could take a randomly chosen math professor from a top 200 college in the US and they’d be considerably smarter. So something is missing.
Indeed, there is a second, and broader way.
Most power comes from coordination.
Coordination at heart, is the power of other people’s beliefs. The belief among the members of a group that they will all act together, or all act at the command of a leader. The belief of the dominated group that they will be punished severely for any resistance.
The simplest form is cooperation – an explicit agreement to help each other out. This can create power even if everyone is otherwise equal. A criminal gang combined creates much more power for each of its members than they would have if they were acting alone. Four people together can gang up on another person while taking much less damage than one quarter of what they’d sustain in a one on one fight. So they have a force multiplier –the gang of four can win more than four uneven fights.
With basic co-ordination, the equivalent of ‘having inherent strength’ is having the power of numbers –inherent attributes and coordination are complements, as people generally want to coordinate with the strongest person. But co-ordination can outstrip inherent differences in numbers quite easily. Four bullies in a schoolyard can terrorize the entire rest of the student body, even though the latter are much more numerous, and their combined strength is greater. This is just another way of saying that if everyone else could coordinate, they would actually hold the power. How do they do that? How do they agree to a plan, and get everyone to stick to it? It seems like such a trivial thing to surmount, but it is in fact the entire thing.
Or if that’s trite, how did the ~35% Sunni population of Iraq rule over the ~65% Shiite population for so long? It could be that the Sunnis are better fighters, but the subsequent developments don’t seem to immediately support this – the Iraqi government may or may not survive American withdrawal, but the Shiites successfully expelled the Sunni from Baghdad, and I doubt that ISIS car bombs are sufficient to reverse this.
Beliefs often create self-fulfilling prophesies. When everyone knows that Saddam is in charge, and that dissent is ruthlessly punished, it becomes very difficult for the Shiite to all know when and how to rise up at once (even the first American arrival in 1991 wasn’t enough to generate this). The army will always be co-ordinated in their response, but the mob lacks the discipline and certainty to know that actions will be followed through. So everyone wonders if they start lobbing Molotov cocktails at the police, will the rest of the people join them, or abandon them to the tender mercies of Saddam and his industrial shredders? This uncertainty greatly benefits the incumbent government – that is to say, the better co-ordinated group.
As a result of this, smart leaders worry a lot about preventing opposition groups from organizing. Gary King’s research about Chinese internet censorship reveals that the ChiComs understand this principle very well. Most people seem to think that it’s risky to criticize the government, but this isn’t what actually gets you censored. You can say that a governor is worthless, or corrupt, or a crook. You can say that he’s having an affair, and give the name of his mistress. This kind of information is actually quite useful to the Communist party. Like any organization, they have to measure the performance of their subordinates, and promote the competent. Finding out which local officials are pissing off lots of citizens is something you’d like to know.
What you can’t say, however, is “…and so let’s go protest”. That is what gets you censored. And it turns out this holds true even for positive statements that involve collective action. “Let’s have a rally in support of the new environmental policy” also gets you censored. When lots of people turn up in the streets at once, moods can change very quickly. Remember, co-ordination (where we all think and do the same thing) doesn’t need to be co-operation, where we all explicitly agree to help each other. It’s enough if a single event makes a mob all get angry at once, there doesn’t need to be a central controlling figure or an organized plan.
This paper finally explained to me why the Chinese government was so paranoid about Falun Gong. Aren’t they just a meditation group? Probably, but it turns out it doesn’t matter. If you can get 10,000 people to all turn up at once in Tienanmen Square, you are a potential existential threat to the government, even if all you’re doing is meditating.
This is also the story of the Gulen movement in Turkey. As a mutual advancement society and cult of personality, they had strong loyalty to Gulen and each other. But so did Erdogan’s supporters, and they had the advantage of both the incumbency of government, and a superiority of numbers. So how did the Gulenists come close to pulling off a coup? They held one considerable co-ordination advantage over Erdogan – they knew who all the key Erdogan supporters were, but Erdogan didn’t know who the Gulenists were. This meant that even though Erdogan knew he was being undermined, and had the numbers to crush them, he didn’t know who to strike. So he was strong, but blind.
The story I heard (though all such stories out of Turkey are speculation) was that the key development that took place earlier in the year was that Erodgan had finally cracked the communication system by which the Gulenists were able to communicate with each other. And suddenly the game changed very quickly. Once he knew who they were, the Gulenists were in a tight spot. The story goes that they had to rush forward plans for the coup, because they knew that Erdogan was planning a big purge of them. In some sense, this was obvious – why in God’s name would you start a coup on a Friday night, rather than at 4am? Subsequent events bear this out too – within days of the coup’s failure, there were long lists of people fired or imprisoned. This means that they had at least some of the lists in advance.
But even so, it was a near thing. Because beliefs are fragile, if one can decisively change everyone else’s opinions, the Gulenists could have turned into the Baathists of Iraq, ruling over a much larger population. The key moment, as I wrote about before, was Erdogan’s facetime press conference. By getting the message out to lots of people to take to the streets, suddenly the Gulenists had a much harder time, because the government supporters now had both numbers and co-ordination – the self-fulfilling prophesy of the coup succeeding starts to turn around, people desert, and you end up dead or in prison. Until the last few months, the Gulenists looked like a very savvy model of how to build power to subvert and overthrow a government with a smaller force. Usually, guerrilla movements appeal to the numbers of the people, and their discontent. Almost pulling off a coup without popular support, and without being the army itself, is quite an impressive feat, even if they ultimately failed.
Viewed from this angle, we can suddenly see why formal systems of government are so difficult to achieve, whether this is in the form of an all-powerful king or an all-powerful constitution. Saying that the king will have absolute authority is presuming the conclusion you’re trying to reach. The king doesn’t fight off armies single-handedly, he rules because his subjects believe that it’s in their interests to follow his orders. Does this hold true for every possible order? If the order hasn’t been given yet, it might be hard to say. But if orders stop being obeyed, either he stops being an all powerful king and becomes merely one center of power in the system of government, or stops being king altogether, most likely killed by the general who disobeyed him.
We thus have a basis for Maine’s striking observation about the British crown – that some of its powers were probably lost through lack of use. If the nature of power is people’s beliefs, these are hard to measure. And while past history is a good guide to what people think now, how do you know the world hasn’t changed in the interim? Even the ruling flag must continue to be run up the flagpole from time to time in order to know that people will continue to salute.
Because cooperation requires us to agree upon a plan, it usually requires hierarchy. Somebody is at the top, and gives orders. This way, everyone knows what they need to do. And so gangs nearly always have a leader.
As I noted before, the first king is the king because he is a great leader of men, and able to upset the old order. And these traits get passed on to subsequent generations, giving them a fundamental advantage over other men. But still, subsequent monarchs are primarily the king simply because they are the son of the old king, and everyone believes that this is the basis for government, so orders get obeyed. In this regard, succession planning and institutional rules are very important in maintaining power. Monarchies make this process very simple, as rules of succession are familial and well-laid out. If they create bad incentives, it’s for potential offspring of the king to kill each other, but at least the general populace is relatively well insulated from such issues. One-party states, like the Chinese Communists, sometimes are able to manage the process pretty well. But this usually involves handing over power before the leader dies. Otherwise there’s uncertainty about who will take over, which can lead to infighting and difficulties when the leader dies, or mass purges in the leadup.
Moreover, the orderly handing over of power becomes incredibly important in getting leaders to step aside when the time is right. If there is a strong tradition of treating past rulers fairly, then current rulers will be more willing to step down when they get old and frail. If there is a history that rulers get killed and replaced, the incentive is a to pull a Mugabe, and hang on until they carry you out in a box. In this regard, the most important development of the American revolution was George Washington’s decision to step down after two terms, as it encouraged the other leaders to follow suit, rather than setting up a dictatorship because they knew that if they didn’t, the next guy would do it.
And finally, we have part of an answer to the puzzling fact that major political developments are often entirely unpredicted even a short period beforehand – World War I sweeping away the monarchies, for instance, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hemingway's observation about bankruptcy 0 that it happens gradually, then suddenly - is especially true of governments. It turns out that both ‘The government is stable’ and ‘the government has collapsed’ are self-fulfilling beliefs. As a result, discontent builds slowly, but can stay at a high level for quite a long time, because of the incumbency advantage of the self-fulfilling belief in stable government. These kinds of shifts will likely have a substantial degree of randomness to them –an East German official mistakenly announces that the border with West Berlin will be opened immediately, and this sets off an avalanche that brings down the whole system.
In other words, you could be years or months away from a seismic shift in government, and you probably wouldn’t know it.
Change beliefs and you change the power structure, because beliefs are the power structure.