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On the origins of power

In Chapter 12, we discussed the idea of power in social networks, specifically the idea that power is, to some degree, a property of a network structure. The chapter is careful not to make the claim that having power is merely about “[holding] a pivotal position in the underlying social structure”. As it very reasonably acknowledges, sometimes the “imbalance in a relationship may be almost entirely the result of the personalities of the two people involved”. In other words, yes, sometimes power in a relationship is from the interpersonal dynamics between two people. However, the main argument in the chapter is that one has power from occupying a pivotal position in the social network. But this begs the question: does one become powerful by occupying these positions or does one occupy these positions by being powerful? In other words, what gives rise to these social networks in the first place? This is a question that Chapter 12 does not attempt to answer – and perhaps rightly so, since this is more of a sociological inquiry.

I couldn’t help but think of these questions when I came across an interesting blog analysis on the rise of China’s nouveau riche. As the blogger rightly points out, there is a liberal-conservative divide regarding the creation of power: “Liberals claim that people like Bill Gates become rich because they come from upper class families, with all sorts of advantages.” We heard echoes of this idea when talkshow host John Oliver examined the roots of Donald Trump’s wealth and made a strong case that he lacked sound financial knowledge and was only wealthy because of his inheritance. Conversely, the poor stay poor because they lack the connections that the rich possess. Even if they have talent oozing out of their ears, they will stay poor because the upper echelons of the elite are rigged and controlled by very old families who know how to play the game.

On the other hand, conservatives would argue that “even if income were made 100% equal, within a few years the rich would regain their position and the poor would fall back.” In other words, the rich are where they are because they deserve it. The capitalist system is meritocratic and rightly rewards those who are most capable and talented. The blogger argues that the clearest example of this is in China, where capitalist reforms initiated (or rather, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”) by leaders like Deng Xiaoping allowed those who were stripped of their wealth during the Communist revolution to regain their wealth and status in society. Thinking about it in terms of networks, this would mean that those who occupied pivotal positions in the social network were expelled from it and as part of the peasant class no longer had any advantages that stemmed from their place in the social network. From a networks point of view, they might be indistinguishable from any other member of the peasant class. Yet curiously enough, those who would later become part of China’s wealthy in the midst of capitalist reforms were precisely the descendants of those who had been stripped of their wealth. As The Financial Times explains:

“My parents and grandparents taught us a lot — not Chinese or maths but a sense of values, of how you should be and how you should treat others,” [Liu] says. They also drilled into him the knowledge they had once been very rich but everything had been taken away — a lesson all too relevant even now.

This runs counter to the liberal idea that power is simply inheriting one’s parents’ pivotal positions in a social network. And rightly so, because to argue that power is simply an inheritance is self-defeating. If power was merely inheritance, then what was its original source – how did the individual possess power in the first place? Clearly, there must have been some first individual who gained power by a means another than inheritance. That first individual must have attained power by his own merit, i.e. by his/her dint of personality or personal characteristics. And that individual’s descendants is more likely, by genetics and upbringing, to possess the same qualities that made this first individual so powerful in the first place. In other words, one could make the case that power may be from occupying pivotal positions in a social network, but in actuality, being in these pivotal positions of the social network cannot be cleanly separated from having personal characteristics that would result in an imbalanced relationship that is tilted in one’s favor in the first place. One is powerful partly because one inherits power and partly because one is powerful by nature, thereby allowing him/her to create new power or maintain old power. This is true of Liu Qiangdong, and this is true of Donald Trump, who may lack sound financial knowledge, but possesses the qualities that keeps people in power, the quality of being able to seem trustworthy enough to win an election no one expected him to win.


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October 2017