Power Switch: How We can Reverse Extreme Inequality. Book Review

November 25, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Imagine you’ve written a mini-book (82 pages) setting out your thoughts on a progressive agenda, scheduled to come out in the first days of a Biden Administration. What could possibly go wrong? I can only imagine what my friend and political sparring partner Paul O’Brien was going through in the early hours of 4th November, as a second Trump term seemed a distinct possibility. But luckily for him, Power Switch: How We can Reverse Extreme Inequality looks like it won’t have to be pulped, after all.

Paul’s aims are high: ‘This book aims to convince you that a massive power switch is possible and could begin in the next couple of years. This pandemic could be the catalyst for a massive transformation of power relations, a new social contract in the U.S., and a shared global struggle between activists around the world to confront and defeat an “inequality virus” that left us unprepared for this pandemic and its economic consequences.’

As Oxfam America’s head of advocacy and campaigns (although Power Switch is written in a personal capacity), he is emerging from a prolonged period of INGO self-questioning, which he boils down into 3 big challenges: legitimacy, the political nature of power, and the essentially local nature of social contracts and politics.

Power switch book

At this point he gets into an important, if occasionally arcane, discussion on power (yes, Foucault is mentioned). He believes that INGO activists have lost sight of the fact that while some power is positive sum, a lot is zero sum (me gaining power means you losing it). He argues that in recent decades, the way ‘empowerment’ has edged out ‘power’ in activist discourse reflects a preference for the kumbayah positive sum version, and has gone too far:

‘“Empowerment” became central to social change and activism, and by empowerment, people mostly meant power as ability—it was a form of power that could be grown without conflict, without zero-sum choices that usually went the wrong way. Feminist thinkers and Southern activists in particular exposed how zero-sum power relationships had been exercised largely by “hegemonic masculinity” to subjugate others throughout history. They wanted a definition of power that was less zero-sum and more generative. To the extent they saw power as a relationship, they were more interested in how a person might stimulate, support and lift the power of themselves or others, rather than control or dominate others in a zero-sum game. That choice—to think more about power as an ability that could be grown in oneself or others without anyone losing—had plenty of merits, but it also came with a cost that weakened the effectiveness of international activism.’

The result? ‘In campaign after campaign international activists fought to mobilize and empower the world against… no one.’

Paul argues that that approach has run its course, and activists need to stop playing nice, not least because the bad guys have no interest in positive sum approaches. He sets out ‘3 nightmares’ – a geopolitical shift towards authoritarian powers; transnational corporations increasing their dominance relative to sovereign governments and the multilateral system collapsing altogether.

So we are at a crunch point:

‘Moments of massive disruption will create a power switch for better or worse. So far, that switch has hurt most people on the planet and benefited the super-elites of our broken economic system. Whether political leaders can now come together to agree on a broad economic reset that switches power back to where it belongs—with most of humanity.’

But then, as he heads into the ‘so what’ chapters (always the hardest to write) on the implications for US activists, he appears to suffer from an attack of vertigo from all this big picture helicopter thinking, descending into an odd mix of strategy and tactics that in total sound like a rather familiar set of left/INGO advocacy demands.

He warns first of the stakes—if Biden’s more conservative instincts hold sway, we can expect vaccine inequality, less American influence in global economics, a slow death for 70-year old multilateralism, a revolt by Southern and youth activists, and a very hard time for billions on the wrong end of inequality.

In order to ‘switch power’, he urges activists to ‘follow the money’. Where does that lead? Stopping capital flight from poor countries, progressive tax reform, more and better aid and other resource flows, and ‘Create and champion new purpose based global funds to support recoveries that reduce inequality in health and in education. One lesson of the past 15 years is that generic calls for more aid land less well with politicians and the general public than more purpose-built initiatives.’

At that point, he lost me – more vertical funds? Really? When we know that they undermine government decision-making and create a horrendous spaghetti of visiting aid wallahs, reporting and all the rest? Just because that’s the only way the US public will swallow more aid? Doesn’t feel like much of a power switch to me.  

He spoke truth to power

Yes, he thinks it will take massive investments to make vaccines free and accessible everywhere and trillions of dollars in fiscal and monetary reforms, but parts of that list – more and better aid, tax reform, debt relief and global reserves are really very old school – it’s what the INGOs like Oxfam have been campaigning on for at least the last 20 years. Is he in danger of power-washing a traditional agenda?

He closes with an exhortation to activists on how new forms of activism might move the Overton Window for the Biden Administration—the window of policies that the public will support.  For my taste, he doesn’t do enough with that last section.  Linking those two visions – the ‘transformational’ and the ‘transactional’ – in anything but a rhetorical fashion is incredibly difficult, and this book shows that.  While I don’t buy Paul’s prescriptions for action, there are plenty of provocations about power, activism and this global moment to make this short book worth a read. 

November 25, 2020
Duncan Green