One of my most favorite and least favorite things about these conferences is the TED bookstore. I’m drawn to it like a cat getting his meth-buzz off catnip (google cat + catnip for some videos). But my list of books to read keeps getting ever longer and somewhere deep down I know this is not sustainable.
I picked up Alain de Botton’s highly readable Status Anxiety, which I’ve been meaning to read anyway, and plowed through it on my flight to North Cyprus. It was a more personal and philosophical take on the Status Syndrome, first coined by Michael Marmot and described in his so-titled book. Marmot is by training a social epidemiologist and draws links between our status (with its correlated autonomy) and our health. Geoffrey Miller in the Mating Mind suggests that the fundamental biological underpinnings of the Status Syndrome lie in our evolutionary driven impulse to compete for mates. In contrast to these more scientifically oriented tomes, Botton potters his way through history, society and politics, revealing somewhat endearingly his own set of status-related insecurities.
At one point, Botton appears to agree with Marx that how status is defined in any society is prescribed by the ideological beliefs of the ruling class. In societies with a landed class, the nobility of landed wealth is taken for granted. In mercantile societies, entrepreneurship is held on high. To paraphrase Marx, the ruling ideas are the ideas of those who rule.
However, “these ideas would never come to rule if they were seen to rule too forcefully. The essence of ideological statements is that, unless our political senses are developed, we will fail to spot them. Ideology is released into society like a colourless, odourless gas. It is embedded in newspapers, advertisements, television programmes and textbooks – where it makes light of its partial, perhaps illogical or unjust, take on the world; where it meekly implies that it is simply stating age-old truths with which only a fool or maniac would disagree.”
It reminded me of the classic four dimensions of power, so classified in the academic literature of sociology and social psychology. I once led a discussion group on these four dimensions and their relation to workplace empowerment. It’s a terribly dry and boring topic, which explains why it hasn’t gained much traction in mass-market literature.
In my presentation of the topic, I related the four dimensions of power to Fight Club, the excellent movie with three of my favorite actors, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter. I recognize that in my analogy, I butcher a highly nuanced and academically complex topic – but this is how I think about power.
First Dimension of Power: Muscle & Speed
The first dimension is about ownership of resources to influence decision outcomes and ability to mobilize these resources. Conflict is assumed. The question is how to position yourself to win the conflict. In a fight, you exercise, practice, build your physical physique. In business, you gain access to assets, people, knowledge.
Second Dimension of Power: Picking the Game and/or Defining the Rules
The second dimension is about controlling the agenda and decision processes. Conflict is still assumed. The question is how to fix the game in such a way that your winning is an inevitable outcome. In a fight, you choose Brazilian jiu jitsu when you’re a black belt and your opponent is short-armed boxer. Or you tack on a mandatory race for a flag when your opponent has no legs. In other arenas, you might arrange the rules of a bidding contest or auction so your firm is the only one that could possibly win. Or you might lead a country down a dead-end path toward unsustainably high debt-to-GDP ratios.
Third Dimension of Power: The Man
The third dimension is about legitimation of power through cultural and normative assumptions. Conflict is not obvious – there is apparent consensus. Dominant power is used to prevent conflict. This is the Marxist view that Botton highlights in his book. The question, as Botton writes, is how to make your views ‘a colourless, odourless gas.’ They should be so subtle that they are obvious. In Fight Club, you are the man that runs the ring. No one would even think to challenge you in a fight; it wouldn’t even occur to them. In other arenas, slaveowners might propagate the prevailing view that Africans are lesser beings. Men might kindly write about the need to protect the frailties and sacredness of women. Western societies might point at the extreme outcomes of Communist undertakings.
Fourth Dimension of Power: The Nebulous Social Matrix
The fourth dimension is about power as a network of social relations. None of us are free of this web, not the researcher, not the observer, not the rich or the poor, not the educated or ignorant. Those of us who are not pathological are all socially constituted. Power is not a convenient, manipulable, deterministic resource. We all act upon each other, and every action being subject to the Law of Unintended Consequences, we will never know the full effect of our choices. In this way, conflict is never necessary but it happens, nevertheless, all the time and in-between. We each have enormous power in this world in our ability to influence each other, but at the same time, we are all subject to each other. In my Fight Club, it is the doorman who got the barman his job, the barman whose wife’s sister is married to the fighter, the fighter who feels guilty because the barman knows he’s cheating on his wife with the dancer and in his defensiveness tries to refuse to fight on this night, and angers the owner who is only calmed down by the doorman who knows the whole story. In another arena, it is a boy who likes airplanes and American movies, who secretly loves Western culture in spite of his father, who is a pharmacist that is jaded by what he has seen of American culture and who is killed along with the boy’s mother in collateral damage by an American bomb, and the boy goes to live with his older brother, who he worships and meets all of his brother’s friends, who treat him as a brother as well, and grows up to strap a bomb to his chest and kill 26 people in an open market.