Power and strategy

IssueSeptember - November 2004
Feature by Steve Whiting

It's quite simple when you think about it: every injustice is a direct consequence of a power imbalance. People do unjust things ... well, because they can. The advantages out-weigh the disadvantages and any resistance can be overcome. It seems to me, then, that achieving justice is all about evening up the power.

A big "Aha!" moment for me was when I came across Gandhi's idea thatpower was not a possession that you acquire, like a house or a better job title, but a relationship. Curiously, quantum physics supports this: absolutely everything from the tiniest sub-atomic particle to a nation state and galaxies in space is defined by its relationships. We are all defined by our relationships and power isa function of that fact. A person's power is directly related to the consent of others.And this is true in every part of our lives -- our homes, workplace, community orinternationally.

Let's define power as the ability to havean impact on things. When we think of power, I guess we automatically see it inthe sense of "power over"--someone having power over others so that their will prevails. This traditional model -- let's call it the domination system -- is incredibly resilient. It uses a combination of force, persuasion, reward and punishment. Belief systems of dominant hierarchies have even resulted in heads of nationsassuming the role of a god. It counters opposition by creating and maintainingdivision. The first step then to challenging this is to seek allies: revolution is notsomething we can do alone.

Power derives from obedience

I think it was Joanna Macey who first suggested other models of power:

  • Power with: the power that comesfrom working together with others rather than alone.
  • Power to: an enabling power derived from knowledge, experience or skill — or even money!
  • Power from: empowerment drawn from an inner conviction, spiritual source or from the trust, confidence and support of others.

When we think of revolution and ending injustice, I believe it's vital to bear these power models in mind. Do we want to replace one system of domination withanother in which we come out on top? Or do we want a completely different world? Our starting point surely should be a shared vision of the world we really wantto live in. Without the vision thing we cannot develop any meaningful strategy or, as the Bible has it "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

And talking of strategy, the concept of power being a relationship is astonishingly helpful; perhaps that's why Gandhi is still regarded as an expert strategist. Another thing he understood was that everyone has some power--even the powerless! If we accept the notion that one person's power derives from the consentor obedience of others, we then need to examine why that consent is given. Whydo we comply with our assigned role in the relationship? Why do we give up ourpower? Why do we obey?

Understanding the dynamic

Take an organisation you're familiar with and list the players in it, the people and groups that make it function. In Turning the Tide workshops we often use theexample of a school. We list the actors and then try to figure out what the power dynamic is. Each of these actors is a stakeholder: they are essential to the smoothworking of the organisation, and in return all benefit in some way from it. But conversely each has the power seriously to disrupt it.

The governors can refuse to appoint a head, the pupils can refuse to attend, thecaretaker can refuse to unlock. But why doesn't this happen? Why does everyoneconsent to its working? What is each gaining from their consent?

If we try to answer this we can identify sources of power like social tradition, con-cepts of legitimacy, belief systems, ability to reward and punish, fear, desire, needfor reward, approval and acceptance, control of information, physical strength,skills and knowledge. One less common source of power is charisma, that innerquality within a person that persuades others to their way. All of these powersources represent the glue that keeps our systems in place.

Knowledge is power, they say, and one crucial factor in any uneven power relationship is control of information. In the 16th century, William Tyndale translatedthe Bible into English and made it accessible to ordinary people, who then beganto challenge the interpretations of it given to them by the church authorities.And today the internet is a hugely powerful tool for us. It provides us with alterna-tives to the official news agencies and opinion shapers. We can delve as deepand as wide as we like into any issue. And we can make contact with many othersdoing the same thing. The unprecedented global opposition to the invasion of Iraqmay have been an indicator of this trend.

Unpicking the web

Let's pick an issue and list the key actors in it. We can draw a diagram if we like of how each actor or group relates to others and we can link them with lines and indi-cate the nature of the relationship.

Take the arms trade: key players mightbe arms company directors, shareholders, government ministers, civil servants, thearmed forces, taxpayers who subsidise the trade, individuals and organisations thatcampaign against it, the media that reports on it (or not), workers in the armsfactories, other organisations and governments that buy the products, sub-con-tractors and companies that store and transport them, the brokers that sellthem, the victims that get killed and traumatised by them... we could make itas simple or complex as we like. We could say that the relationships betweengovernment, civil service, armed forces, arms companies and buyers is very close(we might even say it's incestuous!) and draw thick short lines and overlappingboxes to represent this. We could go deeper and say that maybe not all of gov-ernment has this strong relationship; maybe the Department for InternationalDevelopment has a less thick line connecting it. Or maybe some workers andtrades unions have similar thinner lines.

It's possible to play all day with this. Asuperb resource for this way of understanding the relationships within anyconflict situation is Working with Conflict, a manual published by Responding toConflict (http://www.respond.org).

How can we best engage with thisweb? How might the relationships be altered so that the power imbalance isreduced and the injustice ended? What alliances of opposition could be built? What might be the effect of certain parties withdrawing their consent or refusingto comply? Usually there is a cost; would we and other parties be prepared to pay it? And what might be the benefits? How can we help deal with these consequences? This is when we begin our strategy.

Part of the analysis should also includean evaluation of what we, the change agents, have at our disposal--what skills,knowledge and other resources. What are our strengths that we can play to? Also,what do we need that we lack and how do we get it?

Use of tools

There are plenty of tools available to help with this analysis. One of my favourites isthe pillars. Draw an upside-down pyramid, a triangle standing on its point, and writethe issue in it, the injustice or the power imbalance. This represents an unnatural orunjust situation--pyramids usually stand on their broad base. For a pyramid to standon its point, many pillars must prop it up. The exercise is to draw the props and name them, as many or few as you like.

In the arms trade example, one pillarcould be widespread acceptance of the jobs argument. Another might be gov-ernment subsidies and public ignorance of them. Others could be active govern-ment commitment, international influence, trade union support, lack of effec-tive international controls and so on. The idea is to decide which of the propswould be best for us to try to pull away. Campaigning organisations and activistsare working on most of these.

At the moment particular focus is onresearch into government subsidies and lobbying for effective international con-trols. Direct action and shareholder activism is disrupting business-as-usual atgovernment-sponsored arms fairs and annual general meetings. Remember, non-violent direct action, research, lobbying, mass marching are only tactics within amuch broader change strategy. And, whilst we need all of these approaches, wedon't need to do them all ourselves. It's about making allies and working at whatwe're good at--together.  

One difficult thing, though, is toaccept the time element in all this: the deeper the change we are seeking, thelonger it'll take. We need to pace ourselves. And when enough props have beeneroded or pulled away, the pyramid will topple to a more natural and just position.

Reclaiming our power

Power imbalance is at the root of injustice and power analysis is the essence of anystrategy for resistance. And good strategy is essential for effective action. A lot ofactive nonviolence, therefore, is about empowering ourselves and others to dis-obey--to decline our role in an unequal power relationship. It's about reclaimingour own power and creating a situation in which it is in the interests of our oppo-nents to change what they do.

In the words of Dorothy Day, "No onehas the right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do."

Topics: Activism