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Two False Assumptions about Power

by: Barbara Peterson

Renowned scholar and author on strategic nonviolence, Gene Sharp, points out two erroneous assumptions we make about political power: “centralization [of power] is necessary and preferable to decentralization…and State power is required both to maintain social order and to improve the society in any substantial way.” (1) While these two assumptions overlap, in that the State is a centralized form of power, they make two distinct claims. The first argues that we are better off when a relatively small number of people make laws that determine how everyone shall live. The second claims that people must gain control over the State to make meaningful changes. Let’s take a look at each of these assumptions.

Assumption One

Regardless of whether we are talking about dictatorships or representative democracies, governance is in the hands of a relatively small number of people. This is not to imply in any way that the two types of regimes are the same. Dictatorships are run by one individual (often supported by a small group of their cronies). They answer to virtually no one, and they have the military at their command. Democracies, such as in the United States, are run at the federal level by two elected bodies (bi-cameral legislative and executive) and one appointed body, the Supreme Court. Democracies are far more answerable to and shaped by the people: through elections, political lobbying, and views expressed from open debates in congress as well as the media, general public, societal institutions, business entities, and nongovernment organizations.

Regardless of the systemic checks and balances of power in representative democracies, which are absent in more authoritarian forms of government, peoples’ lives are nevertheless controlled by a small minority of the population. Furthermore, elected officials have no legal obligation to act as true representatives of their constituents, and often they do not, opting instead to serve the interests of corporate supporters and other powerful people. News media, which has the power to hold politicians accountable, has altered significantly in the past half-century. Granted, some changes are definite improvements, such as diversifying news voices, advanced technology to improve the speed and amount of coverage, and providing more substantive stories. However, some changes have made news media less objective and far more click-bait echoing of bias and partisanship. News sources today, of which nearly all have been bought out by a handful of corporations, do less to inform than entertain, and are less concerned with educating than earning a profit. News, in other words, is largely shaped by corporate interests.

Furthermore, the courts, which are supposed to be bastions of objectivity holding up fairness and justice, are more and more tools of partisan politics. Societal institutions and even nongovernmental organizations rely heavily on government and corporate funding. And while nonviolence is arguably more successful than violent protest, and it has become more frequent in the past few decades, its effectiveness has declined. Taken all together, then, the degree to which democratic peoples have control over their life decisions and how their communities will be run, is lessening. Grassroots change is getting increasingly difficult because the people more and more are being excluded from decisional power.

Assumption Two

The second assumption – that people must gain control over the State to make structural change – also needs examining. Many assume that the problems we face are the result of those in power making the wrong decisions. To fix the problems, we adopt one or both of two approaches. One, replace the bad decision-makers with better ones, and two, replace bad laws with better ones. Sadly, history shows that while better laws and law-makers can and often have improved society to some degree (albeit temporarily), they fail in empowering the people. The system itself is the problem; how we have structured governance is what disempowers the people.

Trump’s term as POTUS revealed just how powerful the government is. He passed hundreds of executive orders that dismantled protections for the environment, immigrants, LGBTQ, public education, laborers, and healthcare. His policies and speeches emboldened racial, ethnic, religious, and gender inequity and violence. At the same time, his orders enhanced the authority of corporations, churches, fossil fuel companies, and the militarization of police.

In addition, he and his cohorts threatened, and nearly got away with destroying, our electoral process and the peaceful transition of power through a variety of means: closing voter polling stations, attacking the postal service, absurdly unfair gerrymandering, passing legislation to make it more difficult to vote, and claiming there is voter fraud when there is not. Trump repeatedly refused to commit to saying he will accept the results of the election – thus, putting into jeopardy the peaceful transition of power, a foundational tenet of our democracy. Finally, he rallied his civilian troops, with strategic plausible deniability, to attempt a violent insurrection against the government.

Voting out Trump, while restoring some important protections against those most vulnerable in society, has done little to give people more control over their lives and communities. And this gets to the heart of the second assumption. We assume that, in order to turn things around, the disenfranchised must gain seats of power within the already established hierarchical structures. Though new folks have risen to these seats for hundreds of years without giving any additional power to the people, we somehow still believe that the “right” folks will finally be the change we’ve been waiting for – the change to end oppression, to give workers ownership over their labor, and to secure the level of healthcare, education, and housing that only the wealthiest now enjoy.

Concluding Thoughts

Why do the masses always find themselves in a position of having to fight for freedom? In nearly every large society throughout human history, power has been concentrated in the hands of very few people, and when the people become fed up, they fight: for more rights and freedoms, and for a fairer allocation of resources and justice. We are still doing the same thing today.

I’m not surprised that there has always been some who grabbed power and organized to keep it. What mystifies me is why the people continue to put up with it. Democracy is supposed to be the answer to authoritarianism, to despotic rulers oppressing the masses for their own personal gains. And there’s little doubt democracy is an enormous improvement over autocratic rule. But democracy in practice isn’t a government for, by, and of the people as we were promised.

What we may need is organized, strategic, mass nonviolent noncooperation with current governing structures. Sharp claimed that “[t]he power relationship exists only when completed by the subordinates’ obedience to the ruler’s commands and compliance with his wishes.” The answer may not lie in simply changing laws and lawmakers. What we may need are new, fully empowered parallel governing structures that we create to operate at the community level. Political freedom results from local groups having the power to ensure the safety, security, equity, and wellbeing of all its members without interference from a superordinate group.

We now live in an age where our very existence depends on building a society that nurtures and protects our political freedoms. Not just in the US, but globally. Violence and oppression against marginalized populations combined with our increasing climate crisis is causing a dramatic rise in people fleeing their homes to survive. Small so-called “fixes” are no longer good enough. It’s time to reorganize society so power shifts structurally away from the very few and into the hands of the masses.

1Sharp, Gene (1980) Social Power and Political Freedom. Porter Sargent Publishers: p. 17.

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