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Understanding power

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Amir Hussain deconstructs the popular connotation of power in his latest column appeared in The News on Friday. He analyzes the various aspects and dimensions of what constitutes being powerful.

Power is one of the most abstract concepts that is frequently used in politics and development without much contestation. Power is generally conceived as a negative force of exploitation and subjugation. This suggests that those who hold power have an inherent tendency to be unaccountable, corrupt and brutal.

We generally use a popular phrase: ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Thus, in its simplest popular perspective power is the ability of a person, entity or institution to influence or subjugate the actions of others or to coerce others to submit to one’s desires.

More specifically it is about money, political influence, physical strength and knowledge to subdue those who do not have all this. Ironically, power is so attractive that everyone aspires to be powerful in some way or the other and it seems as if the purpose of life is all about the struggle to gain absolute power. In this sense, power is all about exercising unrestrained freedom and attaining social and political recognition despite all the negativity associated with it.

Dictators and autocrats exercise their power out of fear to preempt public anger rather than a choice to enjoy unrestrained freedom

However, this popular connotation of power is not well grounded and, therefore, it needs to be deconstructed to understand the nature and functionality of power in the real world. Or simply we need to analyze various aspects and dimensions of what constitutes being powerful. In the real world, power is a dynamic force that reveals itself through human actions regulated by institutional structures and it is restrained by the fear rather than belligerence. Dictators and autocrats exercise their power out of fear to preempt public anger rather than a choice to enjoy unrestrained freedom. Autocratic regimes are weaker than democratic governments where power is exercised as a choice with relatively less fear of public anger.

Dictators cannot hold their position for a longer period with peace and harmony because they face popular uprisings. However, uprisings against dictatorial regimes can also lead to revolutions and qualitative transformation of societies. Democracies survive the political crisis because of their ability to rule with popular consent rather than coercion. Democratic governments are less likely to be dislodged by popular uprisings as they have the flexibility to offer a power-sharing programme to minimize political conflict between the rulers and the ruled.

Power in this sense is the ability of a human agency to act to attain collective good rather than ensuring individual freedoms. The freedom of individuals is ascertained only through collective action to transform human society for the betterment of the majority. Even within the institutional structures that regulate the exercise of power human agency strives to express its potential to transform such institutions for a larger goal of reforms and long-term change. However, this expression of power by human agency is not driven by the individualistic appetite for absolute freedom but for a larger goal to transform institutions for an altruistic cause of collective good.

The recognition of an individual cannot be seen in isolation from his/her inherent desire for better social standing. The inherent tendency of human beings for better social standing leads to the expression of the individualistic potential for a larger social cause. The history of political movements and revolutions is evidence of this human tendency which has resulted in dislodging the centuries-old system of control and subjugation. Revolutions are more likely to be successful in autocratic societies than democracies because the former are easier to be dislodged — being weaker than democracies. However, our contemporary democracies under the neoliberal global order are increasingly becoming subservient to global corporate interests rather than protecting the rights of citizens. In our neoliberal world, democracies have been weakened as they are reduced to formulating labour movement regulations only.

In this era of democratic deficit, the world has started to experience a new wave of political movements and resistance against global political and economic order. Democracies are under threat not from international resistance movements but from the transnational economic order imposed on global society. Even staunch proponents of this neoliberal global order have started to express their discontent with regard to the dwindling role of citizens in shaping the global society. Francis Fukuyama has long been a strong advocate of liberal democracy. He articulated one of the most popular ideas — of the end of ideology and inevitability of liberal capitalist democracy as the final destination of human progress and prosperity.

As the world continued to face insurmountable political and economic challenges since the end of the cold war, Fukuyama had to revisit his own intellectual convictions vis-à-vis the role of liberal democracy in building an inclusive and equitable world. In his recent writings, Fukuyama has refuted his own idea of the end of ideology and has now started to write on the possibilities of alternatives.

Liberal democracy has failed to resolve the fundamental contradiction between economic dictatorship and political freedom

The rise of anti-globalization movements across the world is an expression of human agency to assert its power to see a better and more inclusive world for all human beings. While history continues to progress, popular resistance against economic disparities and political exclusion is shaping a new world. Liberal democracy has failed to resolve the fundamental contradiction between economic dictatorship and political freedom, and the world may go into another era of economic and political reconstruction for an equitable global order. With the failing liberal democracies, the power has been dispersed across a multitude of local and international resistance movements which resonate well with the idea of global citizenship beyond national borders.

The power of citizens has certainly played a positive role to rein in the unbridled horse of neoliberalism.

In the context of globalization, the power of citizens has certainly played a positive role to rein in the unbridled horse of neoliberalism. In this sense, power is a positive attribute of human agency and therefore it must be exercised to build a better world for tomorrow. There are some interesting perspectives about power which are generally referred to by the proponents of post-ideology. The most influential perspective of power in a post-ideology debate is the one provided by Michael Foucault.

According to Foucault, power is everywhere; it’s dispersed and diffused and hence it cannot be located as it does not reside with a particular structure, entity or order. This is an important perspective as far as understanding of power as a dynamic force is concerned. But it does not recognize the potential of human agency and the political question of transforming human societies.

Power is dispersed but it can become a collective force to supplant an oppressive and unequal political order with an inclusive and prosperous society. This is how history progresses and this is how human beings have dislodged the autocratic political systems of the past and this is how revolutions will continue to occur till the time the world really becomes a livable place for everyone. So: more power to national and international resistance movements against the atrocities of neoliberalism!

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