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Rethinking empowerment: shared action against powerlessness

Mark Burton and Carolyn Kagan
Manchester Learning Disability Partnership and Manchester Metropolitan University.
A version was published in I Parker and R Spears:  Psychology and Society:   Radical Theory and Practice.  London:  Pluto Press, 1996.

Socially responsible psychologists are aware of the problem of power in the interconnected domains of psychological practice, knowledge, theory and ideology. Doing something worthwhile about the problem requires more than a description of the experience of powerlessness. We need to know something about how power relations are constructed and maintained (produced and reproduced) - knowing that we can identify points for intervention, and the characteristics of viable strategies.
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We are both practical psychologists, involved in the provision and development of publicly funded services to people who are seriously disadvantaged through impairment and experience. Theory must therefore be applicable (cf. Argyris, 1993).

Sheila is 42 years old. She lives with her elderly mother in an inner suburb of Manchester. Their house is owned by the City Council and while structurally sound it is expensive to heat. Across the road are some derelict flats, and the area has high unemployment, high crime, and few amenities or community-based organisations. Sheila has an intellectual disability*, which in her case means that while she can wash, dress and feed herself, and she has the ability to hold a brief conversation, she finds it difficult to deal with novel situations and the unexpected.

*We use this term here since it is perhaps inoffensive (unlike the American 'Mental Retardation', or now obsolete British 'Mental Handicap'), but not misleading (like the current British term 'Learning Disability').
Sheila attends a day centre with about 40 other people with various intellectual disabilities. The staff treat her with civility, but the days are empty with little purposeful activity, little contact with identity-conferring social worlds, and Sheila has been going there for 26 years.

Sheila's aspirations are for her own home, her own family, perhaps a job in a shop. Her likely prospects are for more of the same in the day, until her mother becomes unable to care for her, when after some delay and indecision, Sheila will move to a staffed group home (with three other people she doesn't like much) before being placed with a couple of about her age as a sort of 'honorary family member'.

Occasionally she will meet outright hostility and discrimination, but more often the experience is one of a more subtle marginalisation.

Sheila, then has little power to influence what happens to her. While she has an intrinsic difficulty in identifying relevant aspects of the social situation to act on, a bigger problem is her almost total lack of access to power, that is to the means of influencing anything that has a bearing on her fate.

Other commentators have tried to characterise the problem facing people who both depend on others and who are seen as 'different'. The most systematic of these has been Wolfensberger (1992), who has argued that there is a universal dynamic of societal devaluation, whereby

entire classes of people are judged negatively by an entire collectivity, society, or majority thereof. .... it creates and maintains societally devalued classes who systematically receive poor treatment at the hands of their fellows in society and at the hands of societal structures - including formal, organized human services.
Wolfensberger, 1992, p 3.
He argues that this is universal across all societies, although the actual devalued class varies from society to society. Burton has argued (1994), that in addition to societal devaluation, there is a specific problem in modern Western societies whereby identity conferring social processes and structures (roughly coterminous with civil society) are subverted by the control mechanisms of both state and market: Habermas (19 ) thesis of 'colonisation of the lifeworld. Moreover, the global reach of modern capitalism creates particular threats for marginalised persons as ecological and other traumatic destabilisations occur (Burton, 1994).

A fundamental problem with accounts such as Wolfensberger's is that it gets little further than a moral stance and a description of the phenomena. That description is grounded in the typical experiences of devalued people, but it fails to extend to the socio-historical origins of these phenomena (Burton, 1983). Without a multi-level analysis it is difficult to understand where devaluation comes from, and what should be done about it, psychologically or politically.

We will show some of what happens when the problem of powerlessness is addressed without a multi-level societal analysis, and use work within the Marxist tradition to construct an alternative approach.
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Some current responses

The first, and perhaps most traditionally psychological response is to treat lack of power as a characteristic of the individual, which is then tackled through therapy. The thinking seems to be that if, for example, the person has insufficient power, then they can be given more through additions to their behavioural repertoire. However, as we can see from the case of Sheila, powerlessness results from an interaction of personal, contextual and historical factors, and an intervention solely at the personal level is unlikely to create very much change, unless it is accompanied by more pervasive changes in the person's circumstances. This is not to disparage the idea of attempting to help people function more effectively in their social context, but to suggest that this is not the most immediate task if it is powerlessness that we wish to reverse. It should be noted that some writers on assertiveness recognise the contextual nature and hence the limitations of the approach (Trower, 1982), or its growth at the point of transition from the political and social culture of the 1960s to the more introspective and private culture of the 1970s (Rakos, 1991). Despite this, practice in the field is often far less sophisticated than the more thoughtful academic writers, and in some cases is functionally indistinguishable from the ideology of 'blaming the victim'.

A second response is the appeal to human rights, again in an untheorised way. As a typical example, a large welfare bureaucracy publishes a policy statement for its service provision to people with intellectual disability: the first section is a statement of the rights of these service users - for access to ordinary opportunities, to services that reflect individual need, for respect from staff, etc. etc. Such statements often draw on the philosophy of normalisation/social role valorisation (Wolfensberger, 1972, 1993; O'Brien, 1987; O'Brien and Lyle, 1987), or on the United Nations declaration of human rights. What comes next in the policy document is often in stark contradiction to the fine opening statements, for example a financial framework and a service plan that involves most people living in 4 person homes with staff rostered on a shift system, or assignment to day services on the basis of degree of disability. While service models have progressed considerably over the last fifteen years (Towell, 1987), we are still a long way from real inclusiveness of our most disabled citizens. While we can discount the mismatch between the rhetoric and practice of bureaucratic organisations, a similar phenomena can be found in the rhetoric and practice of individual service providers, including psychologists. Here there may be advocacy of a person's individual rights, but while this may be quite effective in preventing bad things from happening, and in some cases can improve access to various entitlements, it seldom leads to any transformation in the power relations that operate, and can paradoxically increase the reliance of the impaired person on formal services, so perpetuating powerlessness. Rights, like other concepts from the liberal tradition, can be useful in identifying the problems of a society based on social domination, but as guides to action they are of limited usefulness.

Thirdly, an emphasis on empowerment has become popular in social welfare circles since the early 1980s. As (Gomm, 1993) points out, it is usually vaguely defined, and like 'community' it has a generalised meaning of being a 'good thing', but specifically contradictory meanings to those of different political persuasions. There is much rhetoric about empowerment, but little real giving or sharing of power with marginalised people. While acting as a healthy critique of the power of welfare professionals (cf. Illich et al. 1977), the notion of empowerment can easily disguise unchanged social relations: when were you last empowered? Who was kind enough to give up their power for you, and why?

In these times with socialism in retreat and the market seen as the bringer of all good things, the tendency is increasingly to identify empowerment with consumer choice in a commodity market. While there may be some gains from the curbing of monopoly power, the question remains, how might being a consumer of services fundamentally change Sheila's experience of powerlessness? She might have a little more clout in terms of the service system supports she requires in order to construct an identity and life that meets her various needs (see Doyal and Gough, 1991), but her involvement in the social processes available to others (deformed as they are by capitalism) will still be limited by the dead weight of societal construction of her attributes, roles, relationships, and hence place. Moreover, we can, with Habermas (1987/1991, see also Ray, 1993), to see the recourse to markets as the outcome of crises in the legitimation and in the steering mechanisms of the modern state, rather than any kind of a rational choice of a more effective model of meeting people's needs.

The above 'solutions' to the problem of powerlessness share a common ideological basis, 'individualism', that sees social reality in terms of the behaviour, beliefs, values, etc. of individuals. This way of seeing the world, far from being inevitable, emerged only with the emergence of the labour market, and was only labelled in the C19th (Williams, 1976). A consequence in psychological work has been the emphasis on power relations in the dyad, where person A exerts influence over person B, rather than on the effects of power wielded by social institutions, for example on interactions between A and B. The latter kind of, multi-level, set of relationships is more difficult to analyse, especially within the dominant paradigm of social psychology, where models that are both reductionistic and individualistic have been developed, some of which are fine as far as they go (e.g. French and Raven, 1968), but which fail to consider how power is produced and reproduced in a self producing society. It has been left to non-psychologists (e.g. Lukes, 1974; Wrong, 1979), to analyse power more adequately.
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Marxism and powerlessness: some pointers to psychological practice

We now want to show (all too briefly) some of the ways in which Marxist analysis can help us understand the production and reproduction of powerlessness, and suggest ways forward.

We will begin with Marx and his classical analysis of exploitation. Marx and Engels, once they had dialectically moved on from idealistic and mechanistic theories of society, developed what may be seen as a general or meta- theory of the determinants of human society, including the main forms of human experience within it. They saw material necessity, the need to produce food, shelter, etc. as underpinning human society, and the particular mode of production as critical in shaping the social relations and social forces that we experience as social reality, - work, culture, relationships, science, religion, etc. Specifically, they saw classes as the contradictory elements with conflicting interests. Under Capitalism, the property owning class extracted more labour equivalents of value from the production process than they gave back to the labouring class: they extracted 'surplus value'. This set of exploitative social relations was disguised ideologically through the reification of the things produced, as commodities, rather than as the labour that went into their making (see Mepham, 1979).

In its full articulation (Marx, 1865, 1867) this account has the following characteristics (we are less concerned with its accuracy as social theory than with its style of analysis):

1. It identifies the difference in power (control of the means of production versus sale of labour power) between those with different interests (classes).

2. It describes the historical development of these particular social relations.

3. It provides an account of why this exploitative relationship is not usually seen for what it is (commodity fetishism, individual contracts between property owner and labourer)

4. It describes and accounts for some of the psychological phenomena experienced by the oppressed (alienation, but also the development of consciousness as a result of the contradiction between the 'forces of production' and the social 'relations of production' - people work together collectively and learn new skills).

5. It makes some statements about what has to happen for these relationships to be transformed (proletarian revolution).

The above characteristics might be a reasonable set of criteria for assessing the adequacy of a theoretical approach to power and liberation.

Freire (1972a, b) writes on the basis of practical work with non-literate people in North Eastern Brazil. His is an explicitly liberatory educational practice that he contrasts with what he calls the 'banking' model of education, where neutral knowledge is put into passive recipients, by those who know better. Instead, for Freire, education is a 'dialogic' practice, whereby the learner assumes the role of knowing subject in dialogue with the educator, so reality is 'demythologised', as those who had been 'submerged' in oppressive social relations begin to understand these relations and the ideology that hides them, so recasting their social role with critical awareness. Freire articulates this approach against the 'culture of silence', where oppressed people are prevented from what Doyal and Gough (1984, 1991) called 'critical autonomy', the opportunity for participation in the political process. Without this, Freire suggests, people are not allowed 'to be'.

Freire (1972a: 42-44) is clear that such transformations go hand in hand with changes in social relations, using the example of agrarian reform in Chile: he quotes one peasant who explains that he had not learned to read and write previously because

'I didn't even think. Neither did my friends. ... Because it wasn't possible. We lived under orders. We only had to carry out orders. We had nothing to say'.
Freire, 1972a: p43.
The process of 'conscientization', as Freire calls the deepening awareness of both social relations and the possibility of their transformation, is then, not a magical power, or a technique, but a fundamental kind of reflection in action that underpins the work of principled social change agents.

The situation for people like Sheila is not so very different from that of the Chilean quoted earlier, and it is possible to witness a kind of conscientization as people come to simultaneously understand their social situation and find a voice to begin altering it, for example, and in a constrained way, in the self advocacy groups and movement of people with intellectual disabilities (e.g. Williams and Shoultz, 1982; Shearer, 1986: chapter 8). Although Freire's work analyses the oppression of class and of North-South expropriation, he argues (Freire and Macedo, 1993) that the other sources of oppression (race, gender) work in the same general way. While ultimately schematic and suggestive rather than providing an analysis and action orientation that we can 'lift off the shelf' and use in our context (others have developed this line of work, however, see for example McLaren and Leonard, 1993) Freire develops the subjective element in Marx and Engels classic analysis, always keeping it connected with the historical determinants of the context in which we find ourselves.

Habermas (e.g. 1987/1991) is associated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, another home of the subjective side of Marxism. However, Habermas combines a variety of frameworks from western social theory, phenomenological and linguistic philosophy, and psychology (G.H. Mead and Piaget) in a 'reconstruction' of Marxist theory of society and its contradictions (see Dews, 1992; Pusey, 1987; Ray, 1993; White, 1988). While Habermas is chiefly regarded as an academic writer, he has also intervened in politics in Germany (see Holub, 1991). Like Marx, Habermas starts from 'first principles' to build his social theory. He identifies three kinds of rationality, or types of references that could be made in justifying a statement:

A. to a world of events or facts, (teleological, strategic, rational choice, cognitive, or means-ends rationality -'truth')

B. to the world of others and hence of social norms, (contextual, normative, or inter-subjective rationality - 'moral rightness';


C. to the world of personal subjectivity - and that of others - (dramaturgical or aesthetic rationality - 'authenticity').

Habermas argues that the competent human actor and speaker has access to all three of these sources of rationality, simultaneously, and that we have the capacity to select the most appropriate for interpreting a given situation. He argues that we therefore have a shared basis for intelligible communication. It is this recourse to a shared basis for the assessment of rationality that makes social interaction possible, because participants enter with two implicit expectations: that the other person's actions are intentional and that she could, if called upon, justify any claims made in interaction.

Habermas postulates an ideal speech situation wherein coordinative speech acts are subject to such an open and equal process of justification.

Habermas connects this formal analysis of communicative pragmatics to the phenomenological concept of the shared 'life-world'. The lifeworld is both the social world in which we learn to become social beings, and the stored work of preceding generations. The life-world as a totality is not apprehended, but aspects of it are subject to critical reflection, and as that happens they are no longer part of the life-world as such, but part of critical consciousness.

Habermas counterposes to the lifeworld, the idea of the system examples of which include the capitalist economy or a bureaucratic organisation. These systems employ steering media - money and power, which substitute for the implicit or communicatively attained agreement among actors, in order to co-ordinate social activity.

Under 'late-capitalism' the steering media of market and bureaucratic organisation have grown without control, increasingly governing (commodifying and bureaucratising) activities within the lifeworld that would otherwise be intrinsically bound to communicative action: this is the thesis of colonisation of the life-world.

Habermas is pointing both to contradictions in modern societies and to social pathologies resulting from them - analogous to 'alienation' (Dews, 1992, p.14).

Coordination of action through implicit or explicit agreement is essential for the everyday transmission of culture, social integration and the socialisation of individuals, but when such social relations become instead coordinated (colonised) by the steering media of a modern capitalist society, with their bias to strategic rationality, they become distorted, leading to a variety of individual and collective social pathologies.

More specifically, Habermas reviews the trajectory of late capitalist society: Advanced capitalism defused class conflict in the sphere of production, and at the same time the public sphere has been neutralised as a site for authentic public participation. So while the social roles of employee and citizen have been delimited and curtailed, compensations have flowed via the roles of consumer and client.

Habermas has been criticised (e.g. Alvesson and Willmott, 1992; Flood, 1990) for having little to say about power. Yet his whole analysis is concerned with the ways in which open and democratic coordination of human action is subverted by media of power and money. His concern with the erosion of the public sphere, although in the context of a different society from that of Freire, is also a radical concern with the prevention of vast numbers of people from gaining access to the political process. His analysis of the effects of welfare bureaucracies is also of great relevance to the situation of people like Sheila whose already impoverished lifeworld is further colonised and objectified by the formal and technical surrogates for human solidarity.

Both Marx and Freire wrote in social contexts very different from our own. Habermas lives in a society much more similar to ours, but while providing us with a comprehensive and sophisticated 'definition of the problem', he offers little in the way of an action orientation.

Gramsci was both a revolutionary activist and a social theorist, and he was explicitly concerned with problems of political action and the organisation of power in a society that showed at least some of the features of the Western democracies.

Some Marxist approaches to ideology have tended to stress the base/superstructure metaphor, false consciousness, and conspiracy. This gives a rather dualistic notion of ideology, seeing it as ideas that - while reflecting basic class divisions - are somewhat disconnected from the fundamental social relations, as it were standing above them as non-functional epiphenomena.

Gramsci developed an alternative and more integrated approach to ideology in his Prison Notebooks (1971). They are not the easiest of writing, but Williams (1973), Sassoon (1980), and Simon (1982), among others, provide accessible discussions. Elsewhere we discuss Gramsci in relation to the radical behaviourist concept of the 'verbal community' (Burton and Kagan, in press).

While in the nineteenth century the order was maintained mainly by force (the threat of starvation or violence) in modern capitalist societies it is maintained on a day to day basis (although the threat of force is always there) by the organisation of consent. Gramsci uses the concept of ideological hegemony to explain how this is done. His understanding of hegemony is not just about beliefs and ideas, but concerns the whole of society, "saturating" it as Williams (1973) puts it, and even defining the nature and limit of common sense. In the Gramscian view, ideology is not simply a set of ideas that can be "read off" from an economic base. Nor is it a world view imposed by a conspiracy masterminded by the ruling class. Both these formulations are one-sided, and both imply a split between the world of ideas, of beliefs, of world views, or of subjectivity, and that of production, of practice, action, objectivity.

As Williams puts it

...hegemony is not to be understood at the level of mere opinion or mere manipulation. It is a whole body of practices and expectations; our assignments of energy, .....It is a set of meanings and values which as they are experienced as practices appear reciprocally confirming.
(Williams, 1973, p. 38).
For Gramsci, ideology acts as a kind of 'social cement', unifying a bloc of varied social groups and interests. In this, a hegemonic social group exercises leadership and power, not through crude ideological domination, but rather through the combination of key elements from the ideologies of those social groups that form an alliance or social bloc with it. Thus the Thatcher government was able to appeal to the anti-egalitarian sentiments of the skilled working class, as well as to the more traditional ideologies of middle England.

While Gramsci's analysis was constructed for explaining this kind of phenomenon, we can also use it to examine the maintenance of power relations in other social and organisational contexts. Moreover, the point of Gramsci's work is to use the theoretical understanding of domination to construct an action orientation that leads to a transformation in social relations.

A limited example of this can be seen in the widespread adoption of normalisation / social role valorisation, as formulated by Wolfensberger, O'Brien, and others, in the intellectual disability field. Much of this can be attributed to the work of activists inside and outside the formal human service system, including groups such as Values into Action CMHERA. Training workshops for human service workers have been a large part of this work, but because it has been possible to interpret developments in service provision (dispersed, small scale, ordinary housing based residential provision, for example) as exemplars, the endeavour has been articulated with other social forces (progressive aspects of social policy changes) and with a changing reality on the ground. As a result, although we do not want to overplay the robustness and sustainability of these gains, there is a new received common sense about people like Sheila, and what she might reasonably expect from life (see Burton, 1989, for a detailed example of a Gramscian analysis of social and service system change). Normalisation can also be seen as a candidate for hegemonic status since it combines a variety of other ideological currents, for example those of civil rights activists, service users, professionals, families of service users, and those concerned with the cost of hospital provision, and it covers several areas of content including social inclusion and equal rights, autonomy and self determination, and human development and educational/clinical technology.

Gramsci, then, shows us how the exercise of power suffuses civil society, so even if people are not silenced, their understanding of social reality may reflect the ideology of the hegemonic coalition. However, none of this is fixed, and because we all take part in reproducing power and ideology, we have numerous points at which we can subvert it, and join with others to construct counter-hegemonic alliances. In the case of Sheila and people in similar positions, such alliances and their ideologies must incorporate at least a majority of those individuals, groups and interests that impinge on her day to day experience, including family, workers including professionals and managers in a variety of organisations, and so on. The tasks of constructing such alliances for principled change are extremely complex, requiring a broad horizon and the opportunity for critical reflection as well as principled action.
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We have considered naive attempts to tackle the problem of powerlessness, and reviewed a sample of Marxist approaches to the problem. These approaches have differences of emphasis, each has its gaps, but they are all helpful in different ways.

In attempting to do something about the powerlessness of others we might try to keep the following principles in mind:

1. Power is a relative attribute: some have more than others.

2. However Power is primarily systemic in nature, tied to material relations between groups of people with irreconcilable interests.

3. Power is all around us, in our everyday practices and speech, and in our understanding of the world. As such its exercise is greatly hidden.

4. Power decays: it has to be continually regenerated through social interaction.

5. Power is not in our gift, although we can alter social relations on a small scale to catalyse the winning of more power.

6. Power can be acquired by joining with others: the more diverse the social movement, the more powerful, but the more prone to fragmentation. This involves sharing power.

7. Power to change things rests on a vision of what things could be like, and a criticism of the world as it is.

8. While power exists on a societal level, it (or its absence) also exists in the consciousness of individuals, and this self perception of power can, within limits, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We can not prescribe a course of action: that would be bad psychology and bad Marxism, but socially responsible psychologists can use a multi-level analysis such as that sketched above to identify the most important power relations and to decide where to intervene. Beware the twin traps of individualism and social determinism: power is both systemic in nature and exercised by people (see Bhaskar 1989:.36), so while it can be challenged and won, and social relations transformed, this will never be done outside a broad alliance that can be mobilised for sustainable change.

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