What about… power? violence? social media?

OK, OK. Power first. The political system rests on the ‘fabric’ of ‘coordinated expectations’, as Karl Deutsch explained. Though we spend so much time wrestling with it in theory and in practice, power is in fact ‘neither the centre or essence of politics’. Physical force is deployed surprisingly rarely – if still too often – even in authoritarian systems, and then only where other mechanisms of coordination fail.

At any given moment, power is where the collective believes it to be. A prime minister is powerful not because he or she has suddenly acquired some new physical capacity, but because he or she is acknowledged to be prime minister by those around him or her, and from a shared assumption that he or she is entitled or even required to do certain kinds of thing. This is a subtle and sophisticated system of reciprocal expectation, and power shifts when those expectations shift or can no longer be sustained. It’s often expressed as a matter of confidence: a leader’s confidence seems to increase her authority, but her effective leadership depends on the confidence of those around her. And that includes the confidence (rather than the strength) of those who might use force to protect her, including the police and the military.

The social power of a collective is a function of the distribution of knowledge over the collective… Stalin could command only because of what each individual knew about Stalin, about what everyone knew about Stalin, and about what everyone knew about everyone else.

Barry Barnes, ‘Power’, 1993

That sounds a bit like the prime minister is prime minister just because we think she is. And I think that’s right, as far as it goes – but think what it entails. It’s not about what I think, but what we think, which is, in practice, what we think other people think. So think now about what it takes for the collective perception of collective perception to change. It’s not surprising that it usually evolves slowly, but at the same time not so unlikely that it might be subject to sudden, cataclysmic shifts. This is to say that power forms and dissolves in the fragile and ephemeral domain of shared cognition, and what’s so fascinating is how much work ordinarily goes on just to hold it in place.

It’s not far from this back to Arendt, which is why I used her as a point of departure for the book. Underlying what follows is the sense that power is created in action, which is what makes it possible for people to do something in order to ‘take power’ or wrest it from others, that is by changing what Goffman describes as the ‘definition of the situation’. Such actions are important not because they change the situation as such, but because they change the definition of the situation; put another way, the situation is changed because the definition of it is changed. Many if not most actions are taken in order simply that things should go on in a more or less familiar and predictable way, but some change the way people see and think about what’s going on. Both kinds of action are doing some kind of politics.

This is why I think than can be no ‘power’, or at least no effective operation of power, without action and interaction. I’ve wanted here to look at action, at what we take for granted, at what we don’t usually see; to recognise, acknowledge and take account of the mundane, the routine and the sometimes exceptional dynamics of the everyday. Ideologies, interests and institutions, which we take to be the stuff of politics, aren’t things we see, and their very invisibility may be a key part of their power and importance. But none of them would have any existence or significance without the visible interaction of embodied human beings in time and space.


So what about violence? Clearly, some actions are violent (and this includes some speech acts, too). And the resort to violence invariably changes the definition of the situation: there can be no doubt that violence does politics, or that it’s an aspect of many political interactions.

Having to meet has become the fate of civilized people.

Wilbert van Vree, Meetings: the frontline of civilization, 2011

My hesitation is twofold. There is an argument that doing politics is the way we avoid violence, that the term politics should be reserved for all those ways we address and resolve issues and concerns without hitting, shooting or starving each other. Arendt, in similar vein, made a radical distinction between power and violence, explaining how power emerges in interaction among people and the way it begins in and depends on speech. Violence simply works differently, on the basis of the instrumental use of force. Interestingly, violence occurs often in the absence of power, when it is fractured or dissipated. So power may rest on a shared perception of the likely use of violence, but it remains conceptually and practically wholly distinct.

An alternative view is that politics and violence co-exist, blend into each other, necessarily entail one another in such a way that we can’t think of one without the other. So, to simplify all too much, politics and violence are either alternatives or identical, and in the end I think I’m agnostic about which it is. Sometimes but not always does it matter to think of doing politics as an act of violence, and at those times it’s essential. But my interest here is in all the ways politics is done, focusing on the way power is generated and used in interaction. Violence is strictly an epiphenomenon, which may or may not be present when politics is going on.

I should admit to a second hesitation, which is that violence is very difficult to think, write and talk about with the subtlety and sophistication I think it requires. The complexities of doing so are ethical as much as logical or technical. Other people have embarked on this work and are doing it much better than I ever could. I trust them, and I’m unsure of what more I might contribute.

Violence attracts attention, rightly. Here, I’ve wanted to draw attention to what doesn’t usually attract or invite such interest and analysis, that is to the banal virtues of doing politics instead.

Social media

OK, while we’re about it, let’s think about that, too. It has something to do with what I’ve said about power, and perhaps violence, likewise.

Impossible to grasp the nature of conscious collective life in any epoch without an understanding of the material forms and processes through which its ideas were transmitted – the communication networks that enable thought to have a social existence.

Régis Debray, ‘Socialism: a life-cycle’, 2007

I’ve said as much or more here about social media, in fact, as I have about other forms of mass communication such as newspapers, radio and television. Of course there’s much more I might have written about them all, perhaps as spaces of politics. It’s useful to think of their importance and effects in physical and material rather than ideational terms, in the way I’ve tried to think of the document, and something like that of the physical space of the square, the committee room and the constraints and affordances of the table. We think of the Twittersphere, the blogosphere and so on as though they were places.

The question is whether politics has been ‘taken over’ by social media, or displaced there, in such a way as to replace other kinds of doings and sayings ‘in the world’, so to speak. As far as I understand it, the evidence is mixed. Clearly, much debate now happens online, as news and opinion are communicated from phone to phone, while the nature of such discussion is defined at least in part by the capacities and affordances of digital technology, such as the 280 characters of a Tweet. These ways of communicating with each other allow for different kinds of identity and different kinds of relationship between speaker and listener. The hazard they entail is to segment the public sphere into a set of echo chambers in which we communicate only with those who share our views, and/or with little social restraint with those who don’t.

Still, if this is political talk (or is it writing?), it is talk and writing about a politics which is going on ‘in the world’: it is an extension of politics, it changes some things, but it doesn’t ‘change everything’. It’s used to share news and information about meetings and demonstrations, but it doesn’t replace the need for shared physical presence. It’s this politics I’ve been interested in, not least to avoid the fascination with social media distracting us yet again from real doing.


Karl W Deutsch, The Nerves of Government. Models of political communication and control, New York: Free Press, 1963, pp 123-4

‘The social power of a collective…’: Barry Barnes, ‘Power’ in Richard Bellamy, Theories and Concepts of Politics: an introduction, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1993, pp 211, 212, italics in original

‘Having to meet…’ Wilbert van Vree (2011) ‘Meetings: the frontline of civilization’, Sociological Review 59 (s1) 241-262, p 250

Arendt, H (1969) ‘Reflections on violence’, New York Review of Books, February 27; see also Richard Bernstein (2011) ‘Hannah Arendt’s reflections on violence and power’, Iris III 3-30

Recent work on political violence includes Mathias Thaler, Naming Violence: a critical theory of genocide, torture, and terrorism, New York: Columbia UP, 2018; Mihaela Mihai and Mathias Thaler (eds) (2019) Violence and the Imagination: the politics of narrative and representation, special issue of the Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 22 (5); Elizabeth Frazer and Kimberley Hutchings, Can Political Violence ever be Justified? Cambridge: Polity, 2019

‘Impossible to grasp…’: Régis Debray (2007) ‘Socialism: a life-cycle’, New Left Review 46 5-28, p 5