Against the misery of power, the politics of happiness
September 1, 2003 / New Internationalist
Katharine Ainger describes a politics that is not interested in seizing power, but in breaking it into small pieces for everyone to hold.
There was no-one in charge.
It was totally spontaneous, utterly unexpected.
Small fingers flew unerringly over the buttons of mobile phones; emails and instant messages pinged their arrival on to thousands of computer screens; overheated photocopying machines spat out hundreds of hand-drawn posters; playgrounds buzzed with speculation, anger, gossip, fear, plans.
And when Tony Blair finally took Britain to war against Iraq, over 10,000 schoolkids walked out of their classrooms and on to the streets in protest. They climbed the railings in Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s official residence. They stopped a train in Cumbria. They barricaded army recruitment stalls. The girls tied up their school blouses in non-regulation knots and wrote ‘No War!’ on each others’ tummies. What had been characterized as the most apathetic, apolitical generation yet were responsible for the biggest children’s protest in British history.
And that was only counting those who made it beyond the school gates, as Aisling, 13 explained: ‘Our teachers threatened to suspend or expel us if we protested, and they locked us inside the school gates, so we nearly started a riot outside the headmistress’s office! We were shouting things like “Who let the bombs out? Bush, Bush and Blair!” Aren’t we entitled to express our opinions as well as adults?’
Teenagers’ internet chat rooms buzzed with online commentary. Thirteen-year-old Laura from Southampton received a succinct lesson in the workings of democracy: ‘I asked my head [if we could protest], but she supports war (grrrrr!), so I said: “Is it only your opinion that counts?” and she said, “Yes”!’
Many of the organizers, like 15-year-old Elena, were suspended from school. When she went to the High Court to demand the right to sit her exams the judge found in her favour, but not before informing her that she was ‘a very silly little girl’.
It was not just those most disenfranchised members of our society, the children, who were patronized, humoured and ignored. Theirs is merely a magnification of our own powerlessness. All of us who object to the powerful are reduced to silly little girls and boys, told to go home and not interfere with things we don’t understand.
For we live in an era in which the prevailing political ideology of the powerful is a predictable mixture of economic and military domination over the rest of us.
Political decision-making is reduced to a series of technocratic management problems, unrelated to our everyday experiences and problems. As a result we retreat into our private realms. Our political constituency stops at our doorstep.
Significantly, the global gathering of business and political élites at the 2003 World Economic Forum chose the theme ‘Rebuilding Trust’, for which they had conducted a vast global survey with results statistically representing 1.4 billion people. Around the world, two-thirds of those surveyed disagreed that their country is ‘governed by the will of the people’, while corporations ranked next to national legislative bodies right at the bottom of the trust ratings.
But when politicians and pundits lament that the public has no interest in politics, they are wrong. What they are really lamenting is that the public has no interest in them – not in their parties, their pontificating, or their powermongering. For whichever way we vote, it seems like they always end up winning.
The death of politics
From which direction, then, can a true opposition emerge? For an opposing ideology around which resistance can mobilize seems today to be non-existent. Gone are the grand narratives that fuelled the revolutions of the past – the Enlightenment values of equality, liberty and the ‘rights of man’ of the French and American revolutions; the Marxism of the Russian Revolution; the Maoism of the Chinese Revolution; the Third Worldism and nationalism that fuelled the independence movements of former colonies. Where their legacy remains, as in China, it seems only to reinforce the redundancy and moral bankruptcy of alternatives to capitalism.
Worse, the vacuum left by the death of an alternative ideology is being filled by religious fundamentalism and racism. This is happening across the world, from India to Iran, Palestine to Sudan, Europe to Australia. In a recent survey of university students in India, Hitler was rated the third greatest leader in history, after Gandhi and their current Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Vajpayee. Many in the Middle East, Africa and Asia are turning to authoritarian Islamism as the only hope for a true opposition. Populists and opportunists in Europe and Australia have gained political power by fanning the flames of racist anti-immigrant feeling.
The irony for nationalists is that the nation-state is less able to deliver than ever. Where radical governments espousing the cause of social and environmental justice have been voted in at the national level, globalization has severely limited their ability to change anything. One-time currency speculator George Soros explained the role of the financial markets in preventing the implementation of left-wing policies to outraged Brazilians: ‘In the Roman Empire, only the Romans voted. In modern global capitalism, only the Americans vote. Not the Brazilians.’ They went ahead and voted in the left-wing President Lula anyway. But if they weren’t listening to Soros, Lula certainly was. So far his policies have differed little from his right-wing predecessor, because Brazil, racked by an acute financial crisis, is tied by its $260-billion foreign debt. Lula’s pledge to repay in full this vast sum and his acceptance of an unprecedented $30-billion IMF bailout loan package, including all its conditions, means that whoever is in charge, international finance dictates the Brazilian Government’s policy.
In this context, the old Left strategy of building a party and winning political victory at the national level in order to usher in a top-down reordering of the state seems less feasible than ever.
We are in desperate need of a new politics.
Authority or power
The word ‘power’ has one of the longest definitions in the English dictionary.
It is derived from the old French root poeir – the modern version of which, pouvoir, means to be able. Power is always in relationship to something or someone else. The dictionary definition concentrates almost entirely on authority and its various permutations, whether vested in the state, religion or other ruling figure.
But there is another kind of power which the dictionary almost entirely neglects, for it is largely invisible, unremarked, unnoticed – yet it is everywhere. If the power to dominate is the ability to exercise ‘power over’, then what we are interested in might be categorized as ‘power to’. In development circles this has been better known as ‘empowerment’, yet empowerment suggests that someone – usually the development agency – is giving power to the oppressed or powerless. But power cannot be given – it can only be taken. ‘Power to’ is the ability to act for oneself, the ability to create rather than to coerce. It is social power, experienced in relationship with others.
The great lie in our society is that ‘power over’ is the route to fulfilment. Airports are stacked with books such as The 48 Laws of Power, which with amoral cunning teaches businesspeople how to lie, manipulate, flatter and backstab their way to the top. There is only one real route out of powerlessness, we are told, and that is to beat the others and do all we can to join the powerful élite. For many with the least power in the poorest neighbourhoods, the fastest route to power involves gun ownership and crime. But it also applies to those saving up to send their children to top, fee-paying schools. Since very few of us can actually join that power élite, many lives are blighted with the stress of competing and an abiding sense of failure. Yet by and large that élite is filled not with the brightest and best, but with the least scrupulous and the most privileged.
By contrast, ‘power to’ offers an attractive, abiding route out of powerlessness that everybody can use. Native American poet and activist John Trudell explains it like this: ‘Authority is not power. Authority is authority. All authority is usually based upon aggression or implied aggression or active aggression. Authority is authority. Power is something else. Power is what we come from. It is a part of the natural order of the universe – power…’
The intelligent mob
Most Western political philosophers have a fear of so-called ‘mob rule’. This is true for the thinkers of liberal democracies and communist regimes alike. Both share some basic assumptions: that the ‘masses’ are best ruled by superior knowledge and a band of centralized, enlightened professionals.
Joseph Schumpeter summed up the assumptions of liberal democracy when he wrote in his 1943 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy: ‘[the voters] must understand that once they have elected an individual, political action is his business, not theirs.’
Lenin was fixated on the centralized hierarchy as the means for revolution. He wrote about the difficulty intellectual revolutionary vanguards faced in raising the consciousness of the masses without being ‘degraded’ to their level, as he put it.
Neither approach show any faith in the value and intelligence of ordinary people.
This is the crucial failure of the Left in the last century, yet it still has its adherents today. Political parties, whether Left or Right, see the homogeneous ‘mass’ as raw material to legitimize their own power. Radical social change must, once and for all, commit itself to abandon authoritarian leadership – even if those leaders, like Castro, have done much for the poor against the destructive forces of global capitalism.
State communism and the market fundamentalism of today’s globalization era share a belief that a single system, universally applied, can deliver all that is required. Seen in this light, industrial monocropping, genetic engineering and contract farming seem to have much in common with the 20th- century state socialist disasters of enforced collectivization. Both are top-down solutions that ignore diversity, on-the-ground needs, knowledge and reality, and a democratic requirement that those who are most affected should have a say in implementation.
Top-down planning requires reductionism. It has to turn real people and real places into symbols, ciphers and categories, or ignores them altogether. It is incapable of understanding, let alone describing and cataloguing, the myriad, complex features of a real, functioning social order. The world largely runs on its course not because everybody follows the rules but because most people improvise, create, cut corners as they go along. The proof of this can be seen in a ‘work-to-rule’ strike.
This is an action taken by workers in lieu of a riskier, all-out strike. It involves each worker doing only what is required of them on the job, to the letter and nothing more. Most jobs, to be productive, require one to fill in the gaps, use common sense and rely on a dozen informal acts. So a work-to-rule strike can virtually halt production.
It’s all around you
This work-to-rule example reveals the true extent to which top-down planning and leadership rely upon the initiative, intelligence, creativity, consent and ability of ‘those from below’, those who follow rather than command.
While those commands are documented and discussed – think of media debate about government law, or management memos passed around the office – the power that makes most things function, the ‘power to’ remains invisible. Yet it is all around you – society wouldn’t work if it weren’t for this informal web of relationships, shared actions and understandings.
In the everyday scheme of things this ‘people power’ goes unnoticed. It is only when it gets expressed in social rebellion that it is seen to enter the realm of the political, where it is usually met with repression or silence. This has the effect of fooling us into believing that this power is ineffectual. Often, we never realize how powerful we really are.
Despite their failure to prevent war against Iraq, the sheer numbers of those in aggressor nations visibly opposed to invasion saved Iraqi lives by making it clear that large civilian casualties would not be politically acceptable.
Before the invasion began, the Pentagon’s announcement that it would hit Iraq with 3,000 bombs and missiles in the first 48 hours using ‘shock and awe’ tactics drew almost universal condemnation for confusing military and civilian targets.
But when it came to the actual invasion, it used a fraction of that firepower. In the aftermath of the enormous global anti-war protests of 15 February the United States hired huge teams of lawyers to examine each target of war. Their job was to advise the army commanders on whether it was ‘in proportion’ to civilian losses. As USA Today reported: ‘Lawyers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will be working around-the-clock to be on hand when targets appear and fast decisions are needed. With so much of the world sceptical of US intentions, pressure will be high.’
Of course, no government wants to undermine its own authority and appearance of impregnability by admitting that public objection to policy plays any part in its actions. The result is that people conclude they are powerless, and their actions have had no impact whatsoever.
But as Nicholas Hildyard, of the radical research institute The Cornerhouse, reminds us: ‘Many seats of power have always been pretty powerless over many areas of our lives. If you read the literature of companies that we all ascribe great power to, their main preoccupation is how to overcome resistance from the likes of us and other movements.’ Howard Zinn, the radical US historian, puts it even more optimistically: ‘Don’t let “those who have power” intimidate you. No matter how much power they have, they cannot prevent you from living your life, speaking your mind, thinking independently, having relationships with people as you like.’
It seems clear that the powerful spend much of their time and resources attempting to sabotage and undermine recognition of our own power. For we are rich in human ingenuity, in collective resources, in imagination and above all in sheer numbers.
So when we are looking for an alternative politics, perhaps we need not look very far.
What we need is not a new political theory, but to widen the very notion of what politics is, to access the sources of our own power, regrounded in the reality of our everyday lives and practices.
Many of our common social interactions, our expressions of mutual support, care and co-operation, remain outside the realm of authority and the market and are a kind of power. It is this ‘power to’ that is the creative force of a politics that doesn’t look like politics.
The idea of ‘mutual aid’ is a potent source for the political renewal of the Left, leading us beyond the old dichotomy that social welfare is best provided from above either by the State or the market. Ideas of mutuality and ‘co-production’ put people back at the heart of local services; and these ideas are catching on. Examples range from the much-vaunted participatory budget of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, to the neighbourhood assemblies and occupied factories of Argentina, all the way to the rundown English social-housing estates of Luton, Manchester and Newcastle where, as Hilary Wainwright shows in her book Reclaim the State, people are initiating popular participation in public services. As both users and workers, they show how genuine – not token – local control and participation is an alternative to privatization.
As African revolutionary Thomas Sankara once said: ‘Autonomy is the right to invent one’s own future.’
That means taking control of our own lives; devising systems through which communities can organize themselves. These involve direct democracy, decentralization and radical participation. And there will not be a single ideological model to form a party around and compete in a national election. That’s because what’s needed is a democratic renewal of the system itself, to be implemented here, now, by all of us – one that reaches from the local to the global. No new ideology but a new methodology – one that we build from the ground up.
Power from below is reinventing politics. This time, it’ll be on our own terms.
Read the whole issue here:
Reinventing Power: people take control.