Influence and responding to the status quo

2009-06-24

in Economics, Politics, The environment

Alena Prazak

Influence is an unusual sort of property possessed by people and organizations. Partly, that is because it tends to flow through people as much as vest itself in them. In a world without superheroes, power comes from who stand behind you, rather than what you are personally. People with nobody else’s influence flowing through them are free to behave virtually any way they wish, but are largely unable to drive societal change. By contrast, those with a great deal of influence flowing through them have the appearance of being able to drive societal change, but have a real ability to do so that is constrained by their ability to shape the outcomes that arise from the influence behind and around them. Some of these people might be able to drive real change, by skilfully combining their talents with the influence they possess. Others are simply conduits for the preferences of others, lacking vision or effective agency of their own. Paradoxically, it can be easier to be influential and effectively powerless than to be both influential and a driver of change.

A key example is politicians of different stripes. Some have more influence than others (cabinet ministers, for instance, when compared to backbenchers). They are not, however, unconstrained in the exercise of that influence. If they don’t direct it in a way that its backers are amenable to, it will be lost to the politician doing the directing, as their support evaporates and they lose power (substantively, if not in nominal terms). Serving as the mouthpiece of some industry or constituency might be an effective mechanism for earning a comfortable life, but it isn’t the kind of role that helps to address the key problems facing humanity today.

Perhaps the key task involved in addressing climate change is altering the thinking of those who have the sheer motive power to change things: regulators that need not be toothless, firms that can either resist or help drive a low-carbon agenda, and states that can choose to make a genuine mitigation effort or not to. Entities that are too enduring to ever be complete backers of the status quo need to be made to realize that the shift to a low-carbon economy must happen in one way or another, and it would be a lot better for them (and all else concerned) if that happens in a relatively prompt, orderly, and coordinated manner. Individuals and particular firms can be so entrenched in the present arrangement that their best strategy is always to resist change, but societies and economies are broader things. As things continue to move faster and faster in the world, they need to be ever quicker at realizing what elements of the present order can and should be propagated, and which need to be eliminated or transformed.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan June 24, 2009 at 8:02 pm

I think the position of prime minister of Canada doesn’t fit into your model. Sure, you need people behind you to get there – but once you are there, there are few checks on your power other than popular opinion (which, if we were not in a minority situation, would be less important). Sure, cabinet ministers seemed to be important in the past, but aren’t they becoming explicitly a joke with Harpers huge cabinets?

In other words, power and influence co-incide when you have a dictatorship – when you have one person from whom authority flows and on whom there are few checks. The prime ministers authority was limited during the 90s by cabinet, and now it is limited by the minority situation – so, what will limit the prime ministers power the next time a majority parliament is won?

The ability of single politicians to massively change the system is of course limited. Look at Stephan Dion’s Green Shift, or Thatcher’s poll tax. These two situations are interesting because it really was a situation of the leader pushing a policy through without cabinet support. The fact they failed does seem to support your thesis that power is only as strong as those standing behind you – but is it so hard to imagine a more charismatic version of Dion actually succeeding on the kind of platform he ran? Is it impossible to imagine the poll tax having been adopted if it had been less complex?

Tristan June 24, 2009 at 8:07 pm

“Individuals and particular firms can be so entrenched in the present arrangement that their best strategy is always to resist change, but societies and economies are broader things. As things continue to move faster and faster in the world, they need to be ever quicker at realizing what elements of the present order can and should be propagated, and which need to be eliminated or transformed.”

Who is “they” in the 2nd sentence? If its the firms, then you already said their best strategy is to resist change. Or, are you trying to say that firms should not be passive as regards social change? For that to be so, the law would need to be re-written for firms to have longer and broader interests than short term share value.

Milan June 25, 2009 at 1:59 pm

The Prime Minister has plenty of restrictions: maintaining the support of cabinet, keeping donors happy, remaining in a position to win the next election, etc. He might be relatively free to act in the short term, but the long-term consequences of acting against the interests of some people are sufficiently grave as to constrain behaviour.

Certainly, it is easier to just be a conduit for what other people want to do than it is to try to direct things differently.

Milan June 25, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Who is “they” in the 2nd sentence?

Economies and societies – entities that expect to exist for hundreds more years.

Tristan June 25, 2009 at 2:58 pm

What does Harper have to do to maintain support of cabinet other than try to increase his electability? He’s widely understood to have compromised on every “conservative” principle. I don’t think his cabinet is any more than a group of high salaried puppets.

Tristan June 25, 2009 at 6:04 pm

“Economies and societies – entities that expect to exist for hundreds more years.”

Then “they” is a dubious category to apply the notion of action to. Economies don’t act, or if they act it is by the “invisible hand” – which incidentally, no one seems to believe in the lawlikeness of anymore.

However, the idea that a society should “act” to pursue its general interest is not a new one – it’s present in Rousseau’s notion of a “general will”, which a politician should act on, and Hegel thinks it could be the Monarch. Annoyingly, Canada has a political system which seems to have the right kind of structures to enable action on behalf of the general will. I.e. first past the post elections permit majority governments which are not beholden to the people for a good amount of their tenure, allowing them to act in the long term interest rather than pursue petty popularity points in the polls, and the unelected veto of the Senate (and symbolically the queen) should prevent politicians from pursuing their petty interest when it conflicts with the long term interest of society.

Unfortunately, these are just models – what politics we actually get has to do with the how the people who fill the spaces act, and on the strange contingencies produced by our multi-party system (i.e. minority governments). In reality, a minority government means the prime minister couldn’t act in the long term interest even if he wanted to (and with Harper, its hard to imagine that is the case). And in reality, the Senate doesn’t exercise the power allotted to it to block petty policies which contradict the general interest because it fears being disbanded.

A good example of when the Senate should have acted was Harper’s bill to change election financing – which almost brought down the government. If the senate had simply blocked it for being a petty power game, there might have been no need for the Governor General to make a dubious decision.

Anyway, for action to take place, there need to be positions of power which are filled by politicians who genuinely pursue the long term interests of society and the economy – and this is difficult in a democracy, partly because the government is beholden to special interest (i.e. business lobbies), partly because elections are too often, and partly because elections are neither honest nor about the issues.

. June 26, 2009 at 2:26 pm

“Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory.

Case had always taken it for granted that the real bosses, the kingpins in a given industry, would be both more and less than people. He’d seen it in the men who’d crippled him in Memphis, he’d seen Wage affect the semblance of it in Night City, and it had allowed him to accept Armitage’s flatness and lack of feeling. He’d always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organism. It was the root of street cool, too, the knowing posture that implied connection, invisible lines up to hidden levels of influence.”

William Gibson. Neuromancer.

Milan July 7, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Anyway, for action to take place, there need to be positions of power which are filled by politicians who genuinely pursue the long term interests of society and the economy – and this is difficult in a democracy, partly because the government is beholden to special interest (i.e. business lobbies), partly because elections are too often, and partly because elections are neither honest nor about the issues.

This is difficult under any sort of political system.

Military strongmen, communist oligarchies, and so forth all have stronger incentives to manage near-term problems than long-term ones. After all, near term problems are what determine their personal security (and, in some cases, perks) across a manageable timeframe.

Overcoming that requires retooling of any political system, and I think there are grounds for thinking it is most possible in a democratic system. I think the general concern people have for their children and grandchildren is a more appropriate driver of long-term action than a leader or an elite’s concern about their old age, or the fate of their heirs.

Tristan July 7, 2009 at 5:39 pm

What about Peter and Catherine the greats? Did they spend their periods of rule concentrating on short term problems?

I think leaders that took the long view on conquest are decent models for taking the long view on combating climate change. This wouldn’t be the first time climate change was likened to war, but it is usually likened to the 2nd world war, which is thought of as a war of alliance and containment from the winner’s perspective. Seeing it that way, however, makes it look like we’re perserving the status quo. If surviving the upcoming crisis requires totally re-thinking our society, it might make more sense to see humanity as the invaders rather than the invaded.

Milan July 7, 2009 at 5:47 pm

I am not saying non-democracies never make good long-term choices, or that they never protect the environment.

Look at the environmental policies of the Dominican Republic’s brutal strongman Joaquín Balaguer for evidence that someone can be profoundly anti-liberal and anti-democratic, while still being seriously involved in conservation. Jared Diamond’s Collapse goes on about him quite a bit. One of the major reasons the Dominican Republic didn’t become horribly deforested, like Haiti, is because he banned commercial logging, closed all the sawmills, and ordered the armed forces to attack illegal logging camps.

Clearly, non-democrats can be ‘environmentalists.’

I am saying that (a) rejecting democracy offers no guarantee of producing a better outcome on climate change (b) that doing so would involve significant risks (c) we have a big enough problem to deal with, when it comes to climate change, without taking unnecessary political experiments onto it.

Milan July 7, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Rather than re-hash the ‘democracy v. monarchy v. despotism’ debate we’ve already had, here are the major past posts where it came up:

Democracy as constraint
January 16, 2008

The monarchy and Canada’s citizenship oath
May 22, 2008

Monbiot to King Abdaullah
May 28, 2008

Canada, Charles, and the monarchy
April 7, 2009

Blog index >> Monarchy

. July 7, 2009 at 6:32 pm

“Accountability—let alone democracy—is not absolutely necessary for development; China’s economy has managed spectacularly well with neither. But China is not a good guide to power relations in the bottom billion. In large societies it is more difficult for power to remain personalized: institutions are required, and these tend to limit abuses. Further, compared with the societies of the bottom billion, China is cohesive: the vast majority of its people have a long history of common identity. Elites are therefore likely to align their interests, at least approximately, with those of ordinary people. By contrast, in the small and fragmented societies of the bottom billion, power is personalized, and elites often have a distinct identity. In such societies autocracy is profoundly damaging, sometimes grotesquely so, rather than fairly benign, as in China. Had autocracy been the solution to development, the bottom billion would now be developed; most of them have suffered long periods of rule by dictatorship. Hence, for the bottom billion the accountability of government to citizens may be more than a nice bonus: it may substantially improve the chances of development.”

. July 20, 2009 at 4:17 pm

In fact, dishonesty is unavoidable for almost all politicians.

Public obedience to party lines with which MPs privately disagree is one flagrant example. And when they loyally back leaders, deny aspirations to be one or resign to spend more time with their families, politicians fib. Mr Cameron (like Tony Blair) is good at seeming sincere; but as leader of the opposition he has been obliged to call incessantly for an election, sometimes when he can’t really have wanted one. Then there are the paternalistic veils that all governments draw over aspects of their foreign-policy entanglements, some more justified than others. All that is before you delve into whether the standard exaggerations, distortions and caricatures of political discourse properly count as lies.

That is not to say, as one corrosive view (reinforced by the expenses scandal) has it, that politicians are all degenerates: note the distinction above between technical and pejorative lying. In any case, politicians are only human, and humans lie all the time, if harmlessly and ritualistically. “Fine”, in answer to “How are you?” is often a lazy lie. People lie to spouses about their appearances (and other things), to children about Father Christmas and to themselves about their weight and drinking; in “The Wild Duck” Ibsen calls such salving self-deceptions “life lies”. Politicians have better excuses than most, being bound by commitments made in outdated manifestos and obliged to reconcile conflicting interests and withstand intrusive media scrutiny.

Milan September 8, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Being a successful politician basically requires an ability to focus on short-term power games, often at the expense of what is important over the long term.

Thankfully, the consequences of planning badly are tolerable in most areas of policy-making.

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