Power within social movements

Element Descriptor

Just because you’re sat in a circle, doesn’t mean there are no angles or people angling for power. Even (or especially) if there is no formal structure, that does not mean that good ideas will not sink without trace if they come from the wrong person, or that mistakes and foul ups will be properly investigated. Not understanding how power works means you;ll be at first surprised, and then demoralised by the how things turn out

Level descriptors

NovicePractitionerExpertNinja
You have read Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” and realise that it might just apply to your group in the here and now. You understand that power is shifting, constantly created and recreated, not necessarily simply caught in flowcharts and organograms. Oh, and you use plop diagrams.You understand that power is constructive as well as destructive (even constitutive) and how different cultures have different ways of allowing/disallowing forms of power to be used. You can explain relatively advanced types of assholery without making it personal, keeping it calm and defusing potential flashpoints.You are familiar with academic literatures on power (Lukes, Gaventa and that crowd) and how such perspectives can be applied to social movement organisations. You can explain the trajectories of power games and power plays within and across individual groups, and their likely consequences. You don’t get invited to many parties though.Petty tyrants quake and run when they see you coming, knowing that they will be seen and (compassionately) exposed. You’re able to see new combinations of power games being played, and devise effective counter strategies that protect principles and the underpowered in any group, no matter who is doing the power-grabbing.

Element Overview Essay

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This, like several other elements, is one that you can understand the causes of people refusing to see it, and they want to believe that we can all be one beloved community and that if everyone is sitting in a circle, then somehow the existing power relations have been overcome. Now, it’s only a certain kind of willfully naive, willfully ignorant person who believes this for any length of time, other people who are a bit more canny and who’ve spent a lifetime on the receiving end of soft and hard power. Power of the way that politeness and confidence get mobilised by middle and upper class people, as forms of manipulation and domination will not be hoodwinked by this and I could go on for hours about a certain meeting in late April in 2019, in Manchester, but I won’t. So we don’t want to see it, because then it raises questions of well, are our little social movement organisations actually any better than the things that we are claiming to be trying to overcome? 

The consequences of not seeing is, as with so many of the other elements, you’ll be surprised when it shows its ugly face, and it will show its ugly face. And you’ll feel demoralised because you weren’t expecting it and because you think, “Oh, it’s down to this individual human person” and “oh, my goodness, isn’t human nature irrevocably bad and we’re powerless to do anything about it, and blah, blah, blah.” 

And so you’ll demoralise yourself, you’ll demoralise other people, you will perpetuate myths which are helpful for our lords and masters. 

So what is to be done? Well, we should all be sat down and forced to read and almost 50 year old feminist text called the tyranny of structurelessness. 

I’m quite serious, we should be forced to sit down and read that text and then use it as it applies to our own organisations about who has the silent power, the invisible power, who has the greatest access to resources such as time or money or printing, who has the cultural capital then bordier can be really useful at this point. And obviously, this ties into class and patriarchy and ableism and  white supremacy and if you don’t understand how power works within social movement organisations, I would argue that you’re probably going to do allyship in really harmful short-sighted, selfish and performative ways.

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