In my conversations with members of the Collective, the question of power has come up several times. There is a discomfort with the power that is afforded by the Collective. In some ways this is to be expected. The Collective, in part, is a response to the past. And in the past power was seen to be misused. Part of the current anxiety about power is, I presume, about not wanting to replicate past mistakes.
Could we view power in a different way? In a relational way? When I say this I am drawing on the work of Thomas Hobbes. His book Leviathan can be thought of as planting the foundations for the modern state.
In the ancient world, there were many seats of power, and disputes between the powerful were resolved via violence and war. Hobbes wrote Leviathan in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest eras of human history.
In its place, Hobbes proposes a relational concept. There is the multitude, the people as a whole. We appoint a sovereign, the decider, a person who will make decisions on our behalf. The people cede decision making to the sovereign. The sovereign must balance competing wishes of the people, otherwise she or he will fall out of favour.
There is a covenant between sovereign and people. A mutual agreement. The people benefit by somebody else being the decider, the sovereign rules if she or he makes good decisions.
By default, there are only so many things the sovereign can decide. She or he might decide on whether we go to war, but not on what we have for tea. We know from history that sovereigns who try to decide what we have for tea don’t last very long, or at least not without resorting to constant surveillance, duress and violence.
In this Hobbesian view of the world, it is good that the Collective appoints a group to decide. The problem is not the power, it is the execution of that power. If decisions are made without regard to the multitude, the four or five thousand civil society organisations in Barking and Dagenham, then trouble will brew. If decisions are made about every aspect of these organisations’ existence, then again, expect trouble.
If this analysis is right, there are two other dimensions the Board might want to consider.
- The decisions should be clear. If the multitude don’t know what the Collective board decides, then the relationship breaks down. Better to decide on a few things, be clear about those things, than to be wish washy.
- It isn’t possible to keep everyone happy. Some decisions will upset some people. That is the nature of the sovereign’s task.
- Learning whether decisions achieved what they set out to achieve, honestly, not trying to pretend things went well when they didn’t, is one way to strengthen the relationship between the Board and members of the Collective.
- In the Western tradition there is, from time to time, an orderly transfer of power. This is the moment when the sovereign becomes part of the many, and some of the many become sovereign.
Is this relevant to the work of the Collective? You will decide that. This relational approach is encouraging an embrace of power, clear, open and honest decision making, and a preparedness to find out which decisions pay off and which do not.